Bridging the digital divide is not only about increasing access to the Internet, but also about creating the enabling environment for countries to lead their own digital development. This was the conclusion reached by the speakers of the side session “Safeguarding an open and free Internet” which was hosted by the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) at the first Africa-Europe D4D Hub Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF) on 18 March.
With the aim of identifying concrete priorities for African and European actors to work together in the promotion of an open and free internet, representatives from different think tanks and research institutions shared their views on the opportunities and challenges to promote a truly inclusive digital transformation. The issues that were discussed included ethical aspects, regulatory and technical fragmentation, geopolitical competition, restrictions on freedoms, and data sovereignty. Below is an overview of their top recommendations for policymakers:
1. Investments are needed beyond connectivity
Investing in increasing access to the Internet is certainly much needed if we are to close the digital divide — this was a widely echoed view across different sessions at the MSF. “35 out of every 100 Europeans have access to fixed broadband subscriptions […] this figure is just less than two out of 100 people in Sub-Saharan Africa,” pointed out Karishma Banga, an economist at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS).
However, there are also other areas that African and European investments should pay more attention to, said the experts. For example, the development of a local digital and data industries. “Africa accounts for less than one percent of the global data centre capacity and a large […] there is a lot of space there for targeted investment as well as around building data processing capabilities on the continent to be able to leverage the digital intelligence and to gain competitive advantage as we’ve seen it happening in Europe,” Banga said.
Speakers also called for more engagement of researchers and citizens to advise on investment decisions.
2. The decision-making table should be inclusive
While there is a real opportunity for Europe to increase its digital investments in Africa and to support African countries to achieve their digital priorities, geopolitical considerations should not take precedence, warned the experts.
“For Africa, the challenge is to do this in a way that does not create new dependencies, amounting to what some would call neo-colonialism. And for the EU the challenge is to prove that its model can do just that what it promises, namely providing support to human-centred approaches for the creation of trustworthy digital technologies that is enabling African economic potential and innovation on African terms and driven by African requirements,” said Jan Hofmeyr, Head of Research and Policy at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.
In this sense, Chloe Teevan, Head of Digital Economy and Governance at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) suggested that the Team Europe approach should engage African stakeholders.
“Coordinating amongst ourselves as Europeans is not the end goal […] the important thing with the Team Europe approach going forward would be to turn it into a Team Europe plus Africa approach whereby African stakeholders are really part of the conversation from the get-go,” Teevan said.
3. Ultimately, it is about putting people at the heart of the agenda
Kristina Mãnd, e-democracy expert at the e-Governance Academy called for open Internet to be considered a human rights issue.
“All people should get the most out of digital transformation,” Mãnd said. “In addition to the right to access the Internet, this means secure online spaces, the right to learn digital skills, algorithms that respect people, protection of children, personal data protection, freedom, and openness.”
Teevan shared this opinion: “The needs of end users should be at the center of any digital policy”.
Do you want to learn more? Watch the session recording:
For more information about the MSF, download the event report.