Will our access to the Internet be shut down during the post-polling period? If so, will it be a full or partial shutdown, and how? What are the likely costs and trade-offs?
We are increasingly agitated about these questions given that we’re not getting clear signals from the Communications Authority about its intentions. At the National Elections Conference, it (sort of) said it wouldn’t. More recently, it (sort of) said it may.
There’s no doubt that sensible people are worried about the sentiments flying around social media platforms in this electoral season. Under the guise of political partisanship, outrageously sexist and xenophobic slurs have become the norm. Even though everybody and their dog publicly condemns “hate speech,” there doesn’t seem to be a legal and public consensus on what it actually is.
Is it speech that propagates prejudices and stereotypes of people are based on their gender or ethnicity or religion?
Or is it speech that (intentionally or otherwise) urges and justifies discriminatory behaviour towards groups of people based on their gender, ethnicity, religion or other protected ground? Thus risking crossing the line into incitement to violence?
The fact is, despite our Constitution’s equality protections and despite the large number of legislative provisions that touch on the above, neither responsible authorities nor the public at large seem clear about the definition of “hate speech.” Which means that, potentially, anything anybody says that others disagree with can be labelled hate speech.
Thus, we have a problem that we can’t even properly define. Let alone properly deal with.
But is the solution to shut down the Internet, either partially or in full?
The Kenya Information and Communications Technology Action Network (KICTANET) just published a report on precisely this problem.
It noted that, in 2016, no fewer than 11 African states effected full or partial Internet shutdowns in the context of elections or political protests.
These shutdowns were effected either through Internet Protocol address blocking (particularly of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp). Or through Deep Packet Inspection — the (illegal) diversion of data to “middleboxes.” And so on.
If the Communications Authority goes mad and decides to ignore our constitutional protections to the right to privacy, the freedoms of expression and information, KICTANET points to the following potential consequences:
Uganda’s Internet shutdown, during its elections, is estimated to have cost the economy $2.2 million. Kenya has more Internet users than Uganda — with mobile money transactions amounting to a staggering Ksh15 billion ($15 million) daily.
We have an expectation of customer service so any complicity of our providers with unconstitutional orders would result in at least some legal disputes.
Political consequences are just as grave. Shutdowns fuel wild conspiracy theories and speculation — precisely when accurate information that we can trust is most needed. The Communications Authority has already revealed that it intends to spend a staggering Ksh2 billion ($2 million) on surveillance.
In short, our authorities are pursuing two dangerous options in this electoral season. Unauthorised surveillance to catch hate speech (too imprecisely defined). Or a partial or full Internet shutdown to ensure hate speech doesn’t circulate and fuel mass violence (translation: that political protests don’t become uncontrollable).
L. Muthoni Wanyeki is Amnesty International’s regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes