Towards a Democratic Internet

Brenda Wambui
22 May ,2018

The web (and the rest of the internet) has become a space where citizens come to chat, share ideas, critique the government and explore ways in which Kenya can function better for its citizens. It is a space where one is sure to find the most robust discussions about what it means to be a Kenyan citizen. As the importance of this space has increased, it has also become a place to spread misinformation and disinformation, propagate harmful speech, silence dissent and promote violence. As such, it is important to fight for its openness – which allows us to freely express ourselves, debate our ideas – and uphold our democracy.

The Democratic Principles for an Open Internet serve as an important guide in our efforts to protect this space.

Freedom of expression is a key pillar of any democracy. Kenyans should be able to seek, receive, and impart information freely on the internet without censorship or interference. It is undemocratic to block websites such as Twitter and Facebook, and services like WhatsApp as many Kenyans feared would happen during the 2017 general election, or to throttle internet speeds, which likely did happen. The intended effect of such actions is to suppress free speech, and it is often accompanied by arbitrary content takedowns, paid political posting and in some cases, online violence intended to instill fear.

Freedom of assembly and association is also important – everyone has the right to associate freely through and on the internet for social, political, cultural and other purposes. Kenyan citizens should be able to meet up and organize (especially politically) online to further their goals. This means that the LGBTQI community, feminists, sex positivity and body positivity advocates, human rights defenders and activists among others should be able to use the internet to peacefully organize, exercise their democratic rights and advocate for those of others. It is undemocratic to threaten WhatsApp group administrators with arrest for content posted on their groups due to the potential for misuse of such power.

Accessibility of the internet is key – everyone has an equal right to access and use a secure and open internet. All Kenyans should have equal opportunity for access and participation online, and public stakeholders (such as the government) and private stakeholders (such as Safaricom, Facebook, Google and so on) should identify and address the inequalities that exist, particularly among women and other minorities. We must work to make internet access more affordable, and to increase infrastructure and coverage across the country, especially in rural communities.

Privacy and data protection online are paramount – we all have a right to privacy online. This means freedom from surveillance, the right to use encryption, and the right to be anonymous online. We also have the right to data protection, which includes control over our personal data (and its disclosure, collection, retention, processing and disposal). It is undemocratic for Kenyans’ communications to be surveilled by intelligence agencies. We need to fight for a data protection law and an authority to provide oversight, both of which we do not currently have. Kenyans also need to be educated on the importance of protecting the data, while the government needs to be accountable for all the data it collects and issues (for example, birth certificates, ID  and passport numbers, NHIF and NSSF IDs, KRA PINs, drivers’ license numbers and so on). How does the state keep this data safe? Who has access to this data? Do Kenyans consent for their data to be used for the purposes for which the state uses it? We need answers to these questions.

We also need to have personal safety and security online. It is undemocratic for the web to be a space used to threaten others with physical, sexual and psychological violence/harassment. The police, and the state at large, should take it seriously when people, especially women, report stalking, trolling, blackmail, revenge porn, and hate campaigns. Online violence is still violence, and online harassment is still harassment.

The internet must be inclusive – cultural and linguistic diversity must be promoted, and technical and policy innovation should be encouraged to facilitate plurality of expression. It is important, for example, that our government publishes information online in English and Kiswahili (which it rarely does), as many Kenyans do not speak English. Official state websites should also be accessible to persons with disabilities, such as vision and hearing impaired people. The online space in Kenya must also be structured in a way as to encourage the voices of women and other marginalized people so as to increase its inclusivity.

Network equality must also be assured – we should all have universal and open access to the content online, free from discriminatory prioritization, filtering or traffic control on commercial, political or other grounds. It is the basis of net neutrality – the idea that internet service providers should treat all content flowing through their towers and cables equally, without ensuring faster access to some sites and slower access to others. This is why net neutrality must be protected, and why Facebook’s Free Basics is dangerous. It is also why internet throttling during elections, for example, is undemocratic.

Standards are necessary to make sure these principles work – the internet’s architecture, communication systems, and document and data formats should be based on open standards that ensure complete interoperability, inclusion and equal opportunity for all.

Lastly, there has to be governance – all these principles mean nothing if they are not implemented atop the legal and normative foundations of human rights and social justice, which should be at the heart of how the internet operates and is governed. Multiple diverse stakeholders across sectors should be involved in internet governance, such as the government, civil society groups, private sector stakeholders, academia and the media should be brought to the table in a transparent and multilateral way, based on the principles of openness, inclusive participation and accountability.

This way, we can ensure that the internet in Kenya remains open, accessible and democratic.

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