The Future of Cyberspace in Kenya

(As first posted on Medium).

The Global Conference on Cyberspace, hosted by the Kingdom of the Netherlands on 16th and 17th April, 2015, was a very interesting one to have attended. The convening drew attendance from governments and private sector players; civil society were invited to the table, with a one and a half day pre-event that served as a capacity-building program, and an ‘unconference’ event where they could set the agenda, discuss further on issues that were brought up at the conference, or those not tackled altogether.

The themes under which the future of cyberspace was discussed, were freedom, security and growth. The three are interesting departure points to assess cyberspace considerations in each country. For instance, in Kenya, we continue to enjoy Internet freedom, something I contend is by default, not design, in that it hasn’t been a space that the government has attempted to regulate from the onset. That said, the freedom enjoyed as a result of minimal regulation also exposes individual users and institutions alike to any number of risks — data privacy violations, cyber fraud, to name a few. Kenya is currently awaiting two pieces of legislation: the Data Protection Bill and the Cybercrime and Computer Related Crimes Bill that will introduce measures to protect user privacy as well as provide legal options through which to address cybercrime grievances. Reviews of various versions of these bills have noted that there have been clauses that could undermine freedom of expression. It will be imperative for the Legislative processes to balance provisions on security, privacy and freedom on the Internet.

We will soon need to have a conversation on Net Neutrality in Kenya. India is currently engaging in a conversation on the issue, around the regulatory attempts that could undermine it. The Internet.org effort by Facebook and other tech companies, already on Kenya’s shores (in partnership with Airtel) has come under criticism, that it undermines the principle of network neutrality. The initiative, aimed at first time Internet users in the developing world, is already missing the mark, as the target group makes up for a very minimal percentage of its current users. (If you are an Internet.org user in Kenya, would love to hear your thoughts on the service!)

On security, insights from the 2014 Kenya Cyber Security Report indicate the growing risks that individuals and institutions are increasingly facing — ranging from malware, to fraud. User security in online banking systems locally has been found wanting (read from page 28 of the above report on this). Awareness of the risks posed in cyberspace is minimal, and measures to address and mitigate cyberspace risks, challenges and threats exist mostly on paper. For instance, Kenya has a national cybersecurity strategy penned by the ICT Ministry that outlines measures to be taken to secure the country’s cyberspace and ensure cyber resilience. Since 2012, Kenya has supposedly had a National Computer Incident Response Team Coordination Centre (KE-CIRT/CC), in accordance with ITU recommendations. The said centre is housed under the Communications Authority of Kenya. Its work and impact is unknown, though, you can supposedly report an incident or vulnerability. The importance of such a response mechanism has motivated individual efforts by IT security professionals to offer incident response, share information and raise awareness, in the glaring absence of institutional mechanisms within government. The Kenyan government was once again quick to sign up as a ‘founding member’ of the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise that was unveiled at the close of the conference. Will be watching with unabated breath to see the government’s contribution to this new body. We all remember the repeated defacing of the Kenya government institutions’ websites, as well as hacking of social media accounts…makes one wonder what all these strategies and institutions in place are up to. The same government could violate our constitutional right to privacy in the name of national security. (Let’s not forget the scandal that was the Chinese nationals arrested in Runda in December last year, and who as yet, haven’t been prosecuted for the lack of legislature to this effect.)

On growth, it was rightfully noted that “the Internet is rapidly becoming the most critical infrastructure for economies around the globe”. In Kenya, business and economic growth facilitated by the Internet has massive opportunities as well as challenges. Our Internet-based annual economic outputs are currently valued at approximately Kshs. 100 billion, the second highest in Africa. Impressive indeed. However, further growth and diversification of Internet and cyberspace-related economic activity is limited by lack of regulatory frameworks such as the aforementioned Data Protection Bill. Kenya was once poised to set up a Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector, greatly undermined as a result of a delayed process of enacting the Bill. Initiatives and investments such as Rockefeller’s Digital Jobs Africa bear massive potential, but challenges- including talent — need to be addressed carefully and strategically to ensure that the country can derive more economic growth and generate employment via cyberspace activities.

It’s not all up to government though. Training institutions (with their ever increasing ICT-oriented courses and curricula) need to churn out talent that can either be hired or that can be enterprising around the Internet economy. Civil society needs to align itself to the cyberspace, to keep government (and private sector) in check in their efforts, as many of them could undermine freedoms that have been hard-earned. Academia have their research and analytical work cut out for them. All have to work together to facilitate knowledge exchange and wholesomely contribute to a safe, free and secure cyberspace in Kenya.

A Side Note: other interesting observations from the conference.

From the onset, governments as represented by Ministers read out statements on their position and efforts on enhancing the cyberspace. It was particularly interesting to note the different angles from which various countries approached the discussion. MENA countries emphasized that countering terrorism in the cyberspace is their priority. China invited others to join them in their efforts, reiterating that they believe in the freedom, security and growth of the cyberspace (lots of eyes rolled). Sub-Saharan African countries — Uganda, Senegal and Ghana — read out their ministerial statements, in which they reiterated commitment to passing laws to address cyberspace related issues, with Senegal referring to the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection, recently adopted by the regional body as a guiding principle for their local efforts. There was the usual extending of a begging bowl; assistance from the Global North was sought.

It was noticeable that Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa weren’t as vocal/visible. The three countries are ‘leaders’ in Internet connectivity and have significantly large ICT sectors, one wonders where their ministers of ICT and/or Foreign Affairs were.

It was interesting how most discussions boiled down to matters of mass surveillance (many spirited attempts at justifying it from government types), privacy and security(whether one can exist without the other) in cyberspace.

On civil society participation, it was good to note involvement within the conference programme (e.g. Nnenna Nwakanma’s inclusion in the opening panel, where she fantastically represented civil society voice) and beaming their thoughts out loud via the Twittersphere. That said, I was rather disappointed by the low turnout at the unconference, given dissatisfaction expressed in the main conference discussions by civil society types in attendance. Some of the unconference sessions, however, were interesting, others altogether problematic. (In my view the framing around ‘the next (two) billion Internet users’ worries me…that’s for another day).

However, it was also notable that no civil society organisations were founding members of the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise…so much for a multi-stakeholder approach!

Dear Kenyans, Tweet On!

Social media are playing a critical role in lending and amplifying citizen voices in Kenya today, contributing to what has been termed a ‘networked fifth estate’. Citizens are finding and amplifying their own collective voice; we no longer have to wait for the media, the opposition, civil society, religious institutions,the government or any other ‘intermediary’ to ‘speak on our behalf’ or to represent our views while we passively watch/listen.

 

There is no shortage of issues and problems plaguing Kenya today, heck, it’s like a cruel game of whack-a-mole. Coupled with the politicization of virtually every discourse on any issue in any sector, to be a diligent Kenyan, practising one’s constitutional right to public participation is no small feat.  

 

Our country, for all its misfortunes and blunders has one interesting tool whose impact we are just realizing: the Internet. We have Internet Freedom(the efforts to curtail them,though, are a discussion for another day). Coupled with the proliferation of Internet-enabled mobile devices at increasingly affordable rates for an increasing percentage of the population, we are well on our way to writing an interesting chapter in world history on use of these devices and tools to shape our democracy.

 

Take the controversial Security Laws (Amendment) Bill discussion for instance. Public discourse  began with news pieces from our media that were shared online. The interaction and reactions that ensued largely entailed demanding access to the draft bill that only journalists initially seemed to have access to. Relentless efforts by vigilant citizens tweeting at journalists and legislators to avail the draft saw it uploaded online for wananchi to read and scrutinize for themselves. Problematic clauses in the draft have been highlighted and discussed at length on Twitter for instance, arguably with more depth and diversity of insight and contribution than on traditional media’s coverage. Pressure to allow for public input to the draft has largely come from the online community, when it was noted that this had not taken place.

 

The turnout at the public forum earlier this week was low, despite the flurry of online engagement on the issue. This is where critics of social media’s impact come alive and scorn at the poor translation of online activity to offline action. However, it must be noted that different times call for different strategies. Traditional forms of turning up – physical rallies, street protests, town hall meetings- while significant, are no longer the only forms in which we can exercise civic engagement. We need to be open to the fact that they may no longer be relevant. Besides, don’t we have a  ‘digital government’, in the home of the ‘Silicon Savannah’? This, to me, says that it’s time to rethink public consultation forum models. The newspaper announcements for sessions that are held at impractical times during the week should not be simplified to indicate apathy. In this case, one afternoon session, in one location (Nairobi), on a law that would affect all Kenyans cannot be counted as representative by any stretch of the imagination.  Pressure must be mounted on government, at both county and national levels to rethink effective ways of facilitating citizens’ public participation in governance issues given the various contexts in which they operate. Online consultations have been leveraged before, and are flaunted as a success by the government. I refer to the famed crowdsourcing of contributions to the National Budget by President Kenyatta back in 2011 when he was Minister of Finance. Though we never got to know how citizens’ contributions contributed to the final budget, the approach taken heralded new thinking that shouldn’t be abandoned now.

 

Yes, social media use is not representative of the population. Yes, we have a long way to go before we can talk of all Kenyans being represented online. But this should not give cause to dismiss what is playing out in the online spaces that Kenyans occupy. I contend that these spaces are perhaps even more democratic than ‘offline’ barazas or whatever predated social media as a means for congregating citizens and having them engage in discussion. I contend that for the first time, more Kenyans are transcending physical boundaries and engaging with fellow Kenyans and the rest of the continent and the world, through these online social networks. We have, for a long time, been trying to figure out what national cohesion and integration in Kenya means. Some form of it is being practised on social media. Frictions abound, as they would offline. Insults are hurled, and every so often, dangerous speech (speech with a potential to catalyze violence) rears it ugly head. However, it doesn’t carry the day. Kenyans online must be applauded for the self-regulation mechanisms they engage in to minimize toxicity in their online space. Kenyans ‘cuff’ hate by naming and shaming such speakers, countering such messages, and even drowning them with more speech, something observed by the Umati Project that monitors online public conversations to better understand hate speech dynamics. What is interesting about this trend is that it primarily stems from the citizenry. Calls by media, civil society and even government to ‘stop hate speech’ cannot be said to be the most impactful in easing any online tensions that often arise. The ‘traditional authorities’ do not always hold sway in the online space.
It would be unwise to underestimate the significant role social media is playing in aggregating citizen voices on issues affecting them. So dear Kenyans, tweet on!

 

This post also appeared on the Daily Nation, on December 17, 2014. 

Highlights from the Highway Africa 2013 (#Highway13) Conference: Speaking Truth to Power?

Media Management in The New Age Session Highlights.
Presentations by Jude Mathurine, New Media Lecturer , Rhodes University and Chaacha Mwita, Thomson Foundation

This was an amazing, stirring conference filled with great sessions, presentations, insights and discussions. The Highway Africa conference is said to be the largest gathering of African journalists at any given time. There was a great representation of media practitioners, all in all, a great atmosphere.
The intense two-day conference programme  had participants deciding which sessions to attend, as it was not possible to sit in through all. Owing to the amazing impulses I got a sense of, I’ve tried to capture highlights from tweets generated from the good folk at the conference, under the #Highway13 hashtag. For ease of perusal, I storified the tweets thematically, as per concurrent sessions, especially from the second day of the conference. (Will try my best to capture highlights from day 1 as well.)
*UPDATE: Links to podcasts, and keynote address highlights from both days of the conference*
Highlights from Keynote Addresses:
Director of BBC Global News, Peter Horrocks, delivered a keynote address on Media, Politics and Accountability, summarized here. He spoke on the ethics of journalism, and how the BBC can and does support ethical standards in African media. (Full text of his speech also available here.) It was interesting to listen to the speech, as it came hot off the heels of BBC Africa’s Debate about the role of international media in Africa, in which I also happened to be a panelist.
“Ethical journalism ensures that phone hacking scandals are not repeated.” Peter Horrocks.
Dr. Peter Veirweij, on the second day, delivered a very interesting keynote on Data Speaking Truth to Power, where he emphasized why the future of journalism lies in data. His full presentation is available here. Some interesting highlights and ‘quotables’ from his presentation include:
Journalism is producing truth-seeking stories in the public interest based on data.
With the rise of social media we need a way to make the news, not just rehash it.
While using the tools of science for data journalism, it’s key to abandon the jargon of science (in reporting).
[VIDEO] Data Journalists are the new punks.

His full presentation is available here.
Highlights from Day 2’s (mid-morning)Parallel Sessions: 
 Themes covered include Internet Services, Privacy and Freedom of Expression (ethics, government role, social networks), Speaking truth to power? Who speaks? 
Whose truth? and  Youth Political Participation and Accountability (in South Africa).
It was unfortunate that these run as parallel sessions. I happened to be presenting on one about The role of Social Media & Alternative Media in Elections & Accountability, in which I shared findings from research conducted and projects deployed in Kenya during the 2013 General Elections. I didn’t get to attend most of these wonderful sessions, but thankfully insights were populated on Twitter, for curation here 🙂
Highlights from the Media Management in The New Age Session (day 2).

Presentations by Jude Mathurine, New Media Lecturer , Rhodes University and Chaacha Mwita, Thomson Foundation

I thoroughly enjoyed this session, as it addressed matters of media management, and managing the managers, with the Nation Media Group cited as a case study. The session was followed by the launch of a book with the same title: Media Management in the New Age: How Managers Lead Media in Eastern and Southern Africa   that I highly recommend to the practitioners in this space. The tweets curated here are highlights. More on these presentations available in the aforementioned book.

Here’s a link to the highlights: http://storify.com/NiNanjira/highway-africa-2013-conference-speaking-truth-to-p