Sunday, August 1

The Technology Space Is Rapidly Evolving in Africa, and It’s Not All Good News

The lack of technology policy and its poor implementation can lead to economic and political instability, and the effects of this are magnified in African countries with weak rule of law.

One of the poorest countries in Africa is getting serious about going digital. In October, the Malawian government announced it would require businesses to offer options for digital payments in an effort to expand the digital economy and tax base. Like Malawi, many African countries now find themselves at the forefront of global conversations around how to compete in an increasingly digital economy and govern online spaces, but few are rising to the challenge of safeguarding digital rights in the process.

Rapid population growth across the continent and the anticipation of millions of new technology users in the next five years places additional pressure on African governments to make pivotal policy decisions around cybersecurity, surveillance, internet access, digital rights and data governance. Domestic economic and political pressures, an evolving global order and a pattern of knee-jerk responses by African governments to the challenges of new technologies make the results of these policies even more critical for the African continent.

The lack of technology policy and its poor implementation can lead to economic and political instability, and the effects of this are magnified in African countries with weak rule of law or high debt burdens. Currently, only 14 of Africa’s 54 countries have data protection and privacy laws, and only nine of these are well enforced. In Kenya, a lack of adequate voter data protections contributed to the confusion and upheaval around the 2017 presidential elections. This captured global attention when news broke of Cambridge Analytica’s — the data-mining company behind the Facebook privacy breech in connection to the 2016 US presidential election — involvement in the election.

The questions around the exploitation of Kenyan voter data for political advantage further called into question the legitimacy of an already disputed election that ultimately divided Kenyafor months. In neighboring Uganda, the implementation of a poorly understood social media tax and new duties on mobile money transactions is placing additional strain on the economy. While intended to raise revenue, the duties instead led to a decline in mobile money transactions and a 20% drop in data usage among mobile subscribers. This drop is set to cost the country approximately $750 million this year alone and has already begun hindering entrepreneurship and limiting the financial and digital participation by Uganda’s poorest.

Technology governance and policy is also influencing how African nations navigate an increasingly uncertain global order. A recent report by Freedom House alleged that China is sharing its methods for surveillance and control over digital platforms with African countries. One example of this was in April, the government of Zimbabwe signed a strategic partnership with Chinese startup CloudWalk Technology to establish and implement a national facial recognition program. As part of the deal, Zimbabwe will gain access to cutting edge technology that could enhance their security systems, and in return China will gain access to data on Zimbabwean citizens. Agreements between China and African countries have become rather common through the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative. However, this is the initiative’s first artificial intelligence (AI) program. Continue reading

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