Internet is a Double-Edged Sword. Newsclick Production

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Alex Gakuru, Executive Director of CODE-IP Trust, Kenya talks to Newsclick about the responses in Africa to the Snowden revelations. He says the revelations have come as a shocker and what was looked at as a model of democracy has left a lot of people scared and they are skeptical about what identity to take for their online presence. Gakuru believes that internet is a powerful, enabling tool for the development of a society and humanity. However, if internet comes with the elements of power, money and control attached to it, then it becomes a new cyber lord, he says.



Rishab Bailey (RB): Hello and welcome to Newsclick. We’re honoured to have with us today Alex Gakuru. Alex is the Executive Director of CODE-IP Trust, a Kenyan organisation that is involved in local content creation and development, as well as IP protection. They also deal with Internet policy. Thank you Alex for being with us today.

Alex Gakuru (AG): Thank you for having me.

RB: Now, what has the responses to the Snowden revelations been in Kenya and more generally, across Africa? Have they been as perturbed by these revelations as, say, the governments of Brazil, Germany and so on, or have they taken a more hands-off stance much like the Indian Government has?

AG: I think what the revelations have done is, they’ve come like an earthquake. The problem with an earthquake is that you’re always told you can have your feet on the ground but the moment the ground shakes, you really don’t know what to do. You, sort of, get paralysed and you start doing ‘paralysis analysis’. So what has happened in Africa is it’s become a shocker that what you looked at as a model of democracy, model of the place to locate trust- in this case the United States, has left lots of people very scared and they don’t know what sort of identity they need to assume now for their online presence. Now, you’ll find that the reactions have been various. Some in South Africa have started saying that actually the South African laws have been worse than what the revelations are showing. Other countries across Africa have started looking and reviewing their policies in terms of Internet policy, privacy and confidentiality. Others have gone to an extent of even extending the fear to the registration of mobile phone numbers and they’re saying our governments are spying on us as well just like the other one was spying. So it’s got a myriad of reactions. Some of them are on the surface, others are lying and so there have been various reactions but one thing is clear- it has left lots and lots of shockwaves and the conversation is ongoing. Though you might notice that people are not using as much energy, perhaps out of the fear of the US, as much as they’re using to hit back at their local government, which is pretty understandable because other people don’t want to be seen by the very agencies as if they’re opposing the big powers that be. They fear maybe their accounts will be closed if they criticise some of those countries that also have those free email accounts. So the conversation is going on, sometimes on-board, overboard, sometimes underground but the fears are real and they’re manifested in various reactions those people have.

RB: So do you actually see any African governments, notably maybe South Africa who had previously moved on the IBSA proposal with India and so on, actually assisting countries like Brazil and Germany in trying to internationalise governance systems?

AG: I think one of the problems you’ll find is that the US flexes a lot of power in terms of bilateral agreements and I think what happens is, a sort of competition a lot of these countries have, they would want preferential trade access, there are certain other military aides, there are so many other dependencies that they have with these countries. So they may not speak openly about their cooperation but certainly they’re under pressure from their citizens to ensure that there are data protection laws, if there’s no information then access to free information and certain other related laws that have to do with privacy and especially pegging on their constitutional right to privacy; certainly in Kenya that’s a constitutional right. The governments are increasingly under a lot pressure to ensure that what happened is not done within their jurisdiction. Now this is also having itself certain new challenges or opportunities. You start wondering whether you’re going to find new data centres coming across Africa. This is certainly one of the things being advocated for, so that you do away with some of those countries that are spying on our free emails and everything: sort of like cut off the problem. So this is becoming a popular view across Africa.

RB: Now, there’s a common view that the Internet is a great tool of democratisation. Would you broadly agree tor disagree with this, of course given your experience in Africa and what you must have seen in terms of numerous developmental aspects that ICT can be used for?

AG: Absolutely. It’s not just democracy because democracy is just a foundation of development but in terms of development of society and humanity, undoubtedly, the Internet is a very powerful, enabling environment for the various facets and aspects for development to take place. However, you will find also that if the Internet comes in the form of where there is power- the same old three: money, power and control- the manifestations come on to the Internet and therefore they’ve become new, what are being called, “cyberlords”. You get new powers that come and superimpose, what I’ve called in the past, the new sort of colonisation where the old powers come and impose themselves over the Internet. That risks taking away the benefits of the Internet but indeed, as a neutral platform by itself, it is an enabling environment for the various aspects of development be it democracy, medicine, communication or innovative new products. Certainly it is, without a doubt, a very powerful.. one of the greatest inventions.

RB: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more, which is why it’s so important it’s reclaimed by the people I suppose. Now, what do you see as the most pressing problem from a technical perspective, with current systems of Internet governance and how do these actually affect the Global South or a citizen in the Global South?

AG: Well the problem which you find in the manner in which the Internet is governed, is that by virtue of the fact that they are only islands of connectivity in the Global South, the fact that the centre of gravity for a long time has been the United States. So has been it’s governance. The conversation is set by the US and its allies. Therefore, the US has said they own the Internet, they have made its policies so they’ll do what they like with the Internet. They have a very firm grip on how the Internet evolves. In as much as they are open processes called ICANN and everything else, we do see the conflict in ITU where it’s one country per vote vis-a-vis ICANN which is essentially an American controlled outfit because of the contracts they have with IANA and Department of Commerce and therefore the outcomes coming out if the ICANN are really not representative of what the rest of the Global South requires.

RB: But an argument that is often thrown against these sort of moves to internationalise, is that the Internet has always been developed using a bottoms-up mechanisms whether it’s through the IANA or the IETF laying standards or maybe even ICANN. This seems to be particularly necessary- I don’t know if it actually is- from a technical perspective. Your thoughts?

AG: I can tell you without a fear of doubt or shadow of contradiction that I have been a member of the Non-Commercial Users’ Constituency at ICANN and one of the biggest shockers we have had is that we’ve come to discover that the bottom-up policy/process ICANN claims to do, is only a facade. It’s done to tell the world that’s what it is but in fact ICANN itself flouts its own bottom-up process. It’s used to say that what ICANN does but in reality, things are done oppositely. So that is the problem. If it was really bottom-up everything including the non-commercial interests that are there, representing global public interests, should be right at the top of what ICANN runs. Unfortunately, it’s the complete opposite and it’s the most undervalued of all the voices at ICANN.

RB: So how do you think Global South countries can actually reduce their dependencies on the First World regarding things like content creation, infrastructure and so on? Whether it’s in the form of cloud computing or otherwise.

AG: First of all it’s very sad when I look at Africa and only 2% of the content online is African; that is as of June 2011. That’s a sad state of affairs. People say if you remove South African, which is 1.4, the rest of Africa shares 0.6% of the web pages. Now the domain names are so few when you compare to the number of people. The point I’m trying to out here is that Africa being an example of one of the members of the Global South, really has no presence online. What it has is really a dot and one of the biggest dangers of lacking that content is that we become net consumers of the Internet. We are not producers and considering our diversity, we are then being influenced by all this content that’s there. We’re being westernised and we believe we are being modernised and yet the whole concept is getting lost in the middle. What we need to do as the Global South is to sit back and start asking ourselves what are the real issues that are affecting us? Why are we subsidizing bandwidth when we’re the poor countries, paying to the rich? Rather than them paying to subsidize our bandwidth, we’re actually the ones paying for their access. Snowden and other incidents like those ones with people who fruiterer with bandwidth, it has a cost on the bandwidth. Who pays for it? We pay for it also. So we pay to be spied on, as an example. Now we have to change all of that by employing a series of diverse methods. One of them would be to create a lot more content for us, about us, telling our own stories. We forget the narratives that are always given to us. The second thing we have to do is we have to start thinking of alternative hosting. We don’t need to keep sending our traffic across the seas to be subjected to all this manner of things we have been hearing about. Let it stay with us, we trust ourselves better. In any case if it’s going to be checked out, even here they could still do it so let’s have it locally, in our South. We need to start collaborations amongst the Global South because our challenges our different, theirs are different. We need also to start thinking, within this Internet what is wrong with it’s architectural, governance, technical, all forms that are wrong with it and adopt a model that suits our needs. When I say our needs, it’s our development needs, our cultural needs and given our diversity… and when we talk of free expression let us not forget who’s right to express what? Every culture must have an equal right to express itself online. It doesn’t matter that the ones who have a lot more Internet- 98%- have a bigger right to express what they think about an issue. Whether you’re a population of only twenty thousand people, you have an equal right under the United Nations to express what is your culture of values than the same people who are, let’s say, a million or billion or three hundred million. They are equal, just like one person one vote. So when we look at this as South-South, we must start looking at what our problems are, what is the potential of the Internet to help us address our problems and what can we do, free of dependencies from the so-called people who have created a structure of dependency because if we don’t break that yolk of dependence, unfortunately the Internet is like a double-edged sword. It will be the same thing that is going to be used to cut us aside and make us poorer. Already we are witnessing that in terms of costs, access of Internet and bandwidth. As we subsidize those big companies, it’s becoming costlier and costlier. Rather than the prices coming down in parts of the developing nations, it’s going up. The relative cost of maybe taking a public service vehicle to take a flash drive is becoming cheaper than actually sending via Internet and there’s an experiment they did with South Africa where they had a pigeon and it was actually faster for a pigeon to deliver, I think, 4 MB data than to use the telecom in South Africa. So these are some of the realities we have to start fighting. Address the issues, see how the Internet can be of more value to us and we do proper cost benefit analysis so it’s not just technology for the sake of it because it’s Internet and we have all these wonderful, fancy user apps..

RB: Cool gadgets and so on, yeah.

AG: Cool gadgets and then we’re fascinated, we’re mesmerized. We should move above that stage of being fancy and happy and excited and start getting down to the real nitty-gritties of the Internet, get a hold of it, master the technologies, stop being consumers and become producers in this ecosystem. That’s my view.

RB: Really interesting thoughts Alex and thanks so much for joining us on Newsclick today. I’m afraid that’s all we have time for on this episode.

AG: Thank you very much for having me.

RB: Thank you.