Africa and Internet governance: At the table or on the menu?
Updated on 07 August 2022
Internet governance (IG) is a particularly challenging puzzle when viewed from the perspective of countries in the Global South. Many of these countries are asymmetrically integrated and constrained by structures of dependence established by more advanced countries. This is clear in the push for IG reform by countries in the Global South, arguing that the current model does not adequately address their concerns about access and affordability. Ideally, the plurality of interests and the involvement of diverse stakeholders beyond states, such as civil society, academia, and the private sector, makes the multistakeholder model of IG a well-suited mechanism for Africa’s participation in global IG.
Yet, as Africa increasingly integrates into the digital realm, its ability to substantially engage in global IG requires reassessment. There is a significant difference between participating in international ‘talk shops’ and in contributing to the actual practice of IG. This post critically examines the multistakeholder model of IG from an African perspective. The argument is that significant variations in actor participation, as well as power relations, continue to undermine effective IG participation from countries in the Global South. This supports the argument put forward by Mark Raymond and Laura DeNardis that the multistakeholder model of IG is a misnomer because several of its functions revolve around single groups of specialised actors. Failure to address this reality is complicit in IG failing to live up to its multistakeholder rhetoric.
Reasons often cited for suboptimal participation from African stakeholders in IG include financial constraints to travel to governance institutions and events, the lack of specialised technical expertise, and even a disinterest in issues as a result of different national priorities. These have often resulted in the lack of regional Internet policy co-ordination and a limited ability to move forward an African agenda at the global level.
Interestingly, many of the constraints that have traditionally limited effective African participation in global IG are gradually changing. For example, while broadband access continues to be a problem, Internet penetration rates continue to rise through wireless access. Capacity building and knowledge sharing is widely facilitated by regional and national Internet Governance Forums, technical institutions, and civil society organisations. Similarly, remote participation is increasingly offered as an option for attending IG forums. Have these been effective for African global IG participation? The history of IG provides some insights into this question.
IG has traditionally been the purview of epistemic communities of private companies and technical bodies committed to keeping the Internet a borderless space outside government control. This took a different turn in the mid-1990s as states and more non-state actors entered the field making IG a political issue. Developed countries, largely dissatisfied with international governance institutions and processes, have argued for preserving the self-regulating private sector driven multistakeholder model of IG. Many developing states and civil society organisations, however, favour multilateral processes. They argue that intergovernmental structures offer formal sovereign equality for states, and contend they allow more room for democratic governance with the full participation of all stakeholders. This schism has been evident in contentions over the definition of IG.
Global IG has been described to be a multiple-hat phenomenon, whereby the same well-established players in its global political economy move within key institutions. Specialised expertise in technical aspects of IG makes it a ‘power elitist process’ which includes/excludes actors as was demonstrated in the Bylaws of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) when it was created. While initially centred around the USA, the power elite expanded to include transnational companies from Europe, and intergovernmental organisations such as the European Commission and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The recognition that not all stakeholders should have equal standing was a factor in the resistance to handing oversight of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) to the multistakeholder group. From this perspective, an institutionalised system of hegemony is created, whereby international norms can be seen to primarily benefit their creators. Even then, organisations involved in IG are purported to retain discretion in considerations of how stakeholders are assessed and factored into decisions. Arguably, these are some of the reasons which informed calls for more effective digital co-operation which require complimenting multilateralism by multistakeholderism as recommended by the UNSG’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation.
In reality, not all stakeholders are equally important in global IG where efficiency is perceived to be sacrificed by inclusion of too many voices. The African Internet ecosystem is clearly not among the key players of the broad network of global IG. Hindered by ineffective national information and communication technology (ICT) policies and regulations, and the uneven global distribution of Internet resources, the private sector has traditionally not been active in the global agenda setting of the Internet. This is evident even in global partnerships which work on the basis of consensuses such as the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). It remains to be seen to what extent the proliferation of iHubs across the continent will make a substantive and sustainable difference.
Similarly, involvement in global IG is primarily limited to the participation of states and some civil society organisations in multilateral multistakeholder ‘talk-shop’ forums. A glimpse of these dynamics can be seen in the World Conference on International Telecommunications 12 (WCIT-12) outcome. This was an event at which member states of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) negotiated proposed revisions to the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs). This entailed a proposal to expand the ITU’s mandate to include IG, vehemently opposed by developed countries. Only three African member states took sides with developed countries and declined to sign the ITRs – Kenya, Gambia, and Malawi.
A closer look at the Internet ecosystems in African countries helps explain much of the variance in WCIT-12 outcomes. Driven by a ‘digital decade’ from 2007–2017, Kenya has been a supporter of the multistakeholder IG model and even enshrined it in its Constitution in 2010. Kenyan IG-related agencies consult with various stakeholders – despite allegations of preferential treatment for telecoms. Kenya decided against revisions to ITRs at WCIT-12 because of potential destabilising effects on its thriving Internet-based industries, and similar implications for its status as an Internet traffic exporting country. Another concern was that M-Pesa’s innovative mobile banking service would be placed under the provisions of the ITRs. Civil society organisations were included in Kenya’s delegation to WCIT-12 and involved in decision-making. In contrast, South Africa is among the countries which favoured governmental oversight of IG at WCIT-12. As is typical for most African countries, the South African domestic implementation of multistakeholderism is best described as ad hoc, having limited engagement with stakeholders. Local IG agendas are not well developed resulting in default adaptation of intergovernmental agendas which might not necessarily be best for national interests.
In conclusion, an African perspective of multistakeholder IG highlights the necessity for stakeholders to be fully engaged in the varied components of IG, beyond simply attending talk shops. This reinforces and recognises the agency of African state actors and non-state actors in global affairs.
This post has analysed the domestic and international constraints faced by African stakeholders seeking inclusion into the ‘power elite’ structures of IG. It has also demonstrated how countries like Kenya have managed to turn the tables around by proactively developing a local IG agenda and focusing on its national priorities in the international arena. This is similar to what developed countries do and, until Africans learn to follow suit, they will remain on the menu of IG negotiation tables.
Badriyya Yusuf is a doctoral fellow of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada at the Department of Political Studies, Queen’s University, Canada. Her research interests intersect around the global governance of artificial intelligence, and Africa’s digital transformation.