Why Are International Technology Companies Assisting Repressive African Leaders?
Although 2013 is the recent past, it probably seems like centuries ago for a troubled company like Facebook.
Just a few short years ago, the world’s largest social media company had no congressional hearings to consider, no fake news scandals, and no reputational crisis to shake its foundations. Particularly in Africa, the growth of Facebook had been explosive, and for many first-time web users it was the Internet.
It was during this heyday that Facebook launched the nonprofit-ish project it called Internet.org, with the goal of connecting people to the Internet for free. The project may have seemed laudable, but it was abandoned just a few years later when human rights organizations criticized it for creating a “walled garden” of controlled information and services, subject to potential manipulation by authoritarian leaders, especially in the poorest parts of the world.
It seems that some in the corporate world have not learned a lesson from the Facebook experience. With some notable exceptions, democracy across the region is in decline. In many countries, freedom of expression and assembly are under assault by authoritarian leaders who are becoming increasingly sophisticated at fixing elections, often with help from the private sector.
Observe Tanzania, for example. Once a beacon of peace and prosperity, President John Magufuli has implemented some of the harshest laws cracking down on dissent – including implementing hugely expensive license fees to be a “blogger,” and heavy fines against users for violating subjective content guidelines such as causing “annoyance” or leading to public “disorder.”
Elsewhere in the region, Ugandan strongman Yoweri Museveni, now entering his thirty-second year in power, has pushed a social media tax, while Egypt’s dictator Abdel Fateh el-Sisi has implemented draconian prison sentences against citizens found to be spreading “fake news” or “false rumours” – even unknowingly, or using private messaging apps.
Major Silicon Valley players like Facebook, Google, and Apple aren’t the only ones under pressure to hand over user information or help repressive states with surveillance. After years of focus in the region, China has become the leading international technological partner in Africa, and it is a partner that asks few questions about user privacy.
While Chinese investment and loans into African infrastructure have received significant media attention in recent years, much less is known about the plans for the “digital Silk Road,” which aims to establish fiber optic networks across the continent. Given the fact that these state-owned firms often work hand in hand with Chinese intelligence, experts warn that the situation is ripe for exploitation by their partner governments to increase electronic surveillance on citizens and selectively deter, punish, or eliminate dissident movements.
According to a recent report by Quartz, several Chinese firms have made unprecedented strides in Africa. Transsion Holdings, for example, is Africa’s largest phone maker, and is rumored to allow “backdoor” access to its devices. CloudWalk is undertaking a mass facial recognition program in Zimbabwe. Huawei’s past participation in government surveillance is legendary, and Huawei is now advising Kenya on its ICT master plan.
However it is not just Beijing that is partnering with African authoritarians to repress citizens. Other companies have quietly become some of the worst human rights offenders in Africa, including at least one major European telecommunications firm, which has largely kept its questionable practices in the region quiet from its shareholders and from international human rights groups.
This western company, like others that see the advantage of a good public image, has successfully branded itself as a responsible corporate citizen, and has even pledged to uphold the values of the UN Global Compact, the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, and several other codes of conduct. But the activities of its affiliates in Africa reveals a pattern of behavior that is even more objectionable than what Chinese state companies are doing in the region.
With more than 50 million global subscribers, this western company has operated in at least six African countries, where it has colluded with repressive regimes and used its technology to influence elections.
In 2016, for example, the company complied with the regime in N’Djamena to cut off Internet access for eight months in advance of elections, and to send out anonymous SMS messages to the company’s subscribers, discouraging attendance at opposition political rallies. During the 2015-2018 timeframe, the company shut down Internet access in the DRC for more than 20 days at important political moments. At various other times, this “laudable” western company has been accused of dodgy tax practices, violating local labor laws, and engaging in monopolistic practices, all of which are detrimental to the fragile institutions that attempt to enforce rule of law in the region.
Africa is democratically challenged. Multinational corporations like this European telecommunications company should not be permitted to undermine western principles in order to gain market advantage in Africa, all the while hiding behind a false media front created by their own public relations departments. Telecommunications providers in Africa should come under a microscope, given that the product they supply is digital information, and the free flow of information is essential to a healthy democracy. Some of the more shocking practices of these companies should be exposed, and measures should be implemented at both local and international levels to prevent further abuses. Only then will Africa succeed in rooting out the past and achieving its true potential.