In our digital age, many people regard access to the internet to be comparable to access to water. But sometimes, either laws are not sufficiently adapted to provide such protected access and the freedom of expression and privacy to use, create, and publish digital media, or the laws that do provide such protections are violated.
Indeed, digital technologies are often at the forefront of any breaches in our basic rights of access to information or freedom of expression. At the same time, developments in areas such as digital citizenship underpin our expectations in terms of our access to online information and services.
The issue was first brought to public attention in 1996 with John Perry Barlow’s hugely influential article on the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, in which he highlighted the clear divide between the kind of basic and fundamental rights that are enshrined in the American constitution and the violation of those rights online. At the time, for instance, while the postal service was inviolable, email was most definitely not. Work by the Electronic Frontier Foundation led to the international recognition of cyber-rights.
In essence, our digital rights mirror those outlined by the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and include things such as privacy, freedom of expression, the right to anonymity, and the protection of minors.
A new platform has been created in Africa to help people who feel that their digital rights have been violated and to help them get redress.
The platform, called Ripoti, is taken from the Swahili word to describe reporting something and was launched earlier this year at the Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum. It aims to empower people across Africa and enable them to report digital rights violations easily and effectively, not least by providing victims with expertise to help them document and track any evidence they have of digital rights violations.
Paradigm Initiative, the developers of the platform, highlight how digital rights violations have been increasing in Africa in recent years. They strive to help underserved young Africans access digital opportunities and protect their digital rights, and they reveal that they have observed a considerable spike in reports of violations, such that they are now struggling to cope with the demand from people across the continent.
“Every average citizen is a potential victim but activists, human rights defenders, and journalists are more likely to be victims," they explain.
These breaches of the digital rights of citizens include cyberbullying, illegal access to private information, surveillance of online activities, and even the shutdown of the internet itself, as was the case in Uganda in the run-up to elections in the country at the start of 2021.
The developers of the platform cite a wide range of violations, including similar shutdowns to those that occurred in Uganda in Nigeria, Burundi, Cameroon, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.
They argue that such shutdowns are commonly used by governments to pursue undemocratic and unconstitutional power grabs. The moves by governments occur even in the midst of not only United Nations resolutions on the promotion and protection of human rights, but resolutions by the African Commission on freedom of both information and expression that the team believes should apply just as much online as they do offline.
The violations have become even more prominent during the Covid pandemic as more of our lives have migrated online. What’s more, the team suggests that there may have been digital rights violations administered via contact tracing apps used during the pandemic, while online violence has also increased against women.
Users of the platform will be able to report violations and begin the process of gaining redress for them. The developers also hope that by providing a central place for the reporting of rights violations, it will raise awareness of the challenges faced across Africa and the propensity of digital rights violations. By pooling together a verifiable body of evidence about the breadth and depth of violations, it will hopefully aid significant improvements in the field by the various partners of the project.
One of these partners is Mirror Ethics East Africa, which believes that the platform will act as a useful buffer against cybercrimes, which they believe are on the rise across Africa. They argue that not only is cybercrime increasing in regularity but also has a complexity that is unique to the continent. It’s a problem that is believed to cost Africa over $4 billion every year. With that said, improving matters is far from straightforward, not least as in many countries reporting regular crimes is fruitless enough, much less cybercrime.
Much of the information that is harvested illegally ends up on the dark web, with far-reaching consequences for the victims, be they financial or otherwise. The Ripoti platform aims to help provide those people with a route to report the crimes and try to get redress for them. Time will tell whether it succeeds or not, but it’s certainly positive that they are trying.