Mailyn Fidler is a Marshall Scholar studying international relations at the University of Oxford. You can follow her on Twitter @mailynfidler.
This September, African civil society, business, and government leaders gathered at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa to debate Internet issues at the African Internet Governance Forum. I attended the Forum to interview participants for research I am conducting on the African Union Convention on Cybersecurity and Data Protection.
In the months before the global Internet Governance Forum (IGF) held this year in Brazil, most world regions host their own version of the forum to incubate positions to take at the global IGF. The IGF system was a compromise outcome of the UN-backed World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005, which sought to address inequalities in Internet infrastructure and governance between countries. Although important Internet-related issues are addressed at the forums, they have no binding decision-making power. The ten-year review of the outcomes of WSIS will happen this December, and the agenda of the African IGF largely mirrored issues that will also be addressed then, including Internet governance, Internet access, cybersecurity, and human rights online. The report from the African IGF is available here.
The 2015 African IGF was marked by excitement about increased participation by high-level African government officials. In the past, only Nigerian and host country officials had attended. This year’s event in Addis saw high-level officials from South Africa, Egypt, and Nigeria participate. Speakers noted this phenomenon repeatedly, excited by a sense that governments were taking the gathering, which held its first meeting in 2012, seriously and not writing it off as a civil society echo chamber.
Despite their participation, the government representatives were not entirely supportive of the IGF’s guiding concept. IGFs are committed to multistakeholder ideals, giving equal voice to government, civil society, and business. The representatives expressed concern about this approach, stating the need to prioritize government views. Specifically, one representative raised concerns about a draft document prepared for the ten-year review of WSIS outcomes that endorsed multistakeholder principles. At the panel titled “Enhancing Multi-Stakeholder Cooperation,” a representative from the African Union repeated these concerns, drawing the biggest applause of the forum, trumping the clapping for a young Nigerian woman who challenged an Ethiopian bureaucrat over the questionable detention of bloggers and journalists.
These reservations about multistakeholderism reflect the positions African states have taken on Internet governance in other forums. In perhaps the most prominent example, all but three African state attendees at the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) voted in favor of a proposal for updated International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) that would support a more government-centric Internet governance approach.
Another hotly debated issue at the forum was the interplay between zero-rating and net neutrality. The prime zero-rating example is Facebook’s Internet.org, where the social media company works with providers to offer Facebook and select other websites at no cost to users. Attendees debated whether zero-rating was an appropriate approach to expanding Internet access in Africa. Human rights representatives championed the development as a boon for the least well off, while attendees from the African tech sector resisted it, concerned about having to compete with free Western services. Ebele Okobi, head of public policy for Facebook Africa, sought to highlight Facebook’s recent efforts to include more and locally developed websites on its free platform. Attendees also debated whether zero-rating violated the principle of net neutrality, and if, when, and how African states should legislate to preserve net neutrality.
The first event I attended at the forum opened by urging attendees to remember, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Concerns about making sure Africans are “at the table” resonated throughout the event. I spent coffee breaks with younger attendees, listening to their concerns that the structure and style of the event would resign the African IGF and African perspectives on these issues to obscurity. I watched civil society walk the fine line between welcoming increased government participation, which could give the forum increased seriousness, and resisting increased government influence, which could shut out crucial African voices. I watched the forum grapple with the disparity between the increased willingness and ability of African states to “be at the table” on Internet matters and the limitations the external world still places on African participation. At the same time, attendees also recognized that many African countries still must make huge strides in government, civil society, and technological capacity before having a consistent, firm, and informed seat at the table, despite incredible progress.
A strong African voice on Internet matters at international events may come with decreased inclusiveness. The greater number of African government officials who attended the African IGF, gathered in the Chinese-built hall of the African Union, may well determine such a tradeoff is worth it.