A report by the Danish civil rights think-tank Justitia has fingered Germany’s Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) as indirectly providing a blueprint for online censorship for African governments. The German law requires network operators to delete “obviously illegal content… within 24 hours”, otherwise these providers can be subjected to fines of up to €50 million (about US$54.3 million). Erring on the side of caution, network providers are likely to remove too much content rather than too little, and thus infringe on the rights to freedom of speech and political expression.
Shortly after NetzDG was introduced in the Bundestag in 2017, Kenya’s parliament passed a law against hate speech using the same metrics to measure and regulate hateful content online that was laid out in the German bill. Ethiopia, Rwanda, Nigeria, and Uganda have passed similar bills, all of which have raised concern among journalists and activists who fear that these laws will be used primarily for political censorship.
The Justitia report clarifies that Germany is not responsible for these laws being passed, acknowledging that in all likelihood these and other African governments already intended to pass legislation restricting internet freedoms. Rather, the passage of NetzDG in one of the world’s largest democracies provides easier justification for autocratic governments in Africa to pass similar laws.
Why It Matters
Internet connectivity has been growing rapidly across Africa, as has discontent about long-standing political parties ruling for decades in some countries. Cognizant of the role social media played during the Arab Spring, African dictators and entrenched political machines are scrambling to reduce access to the Internet and crack down on online civil dissent. Not only worrisome for African citizens, these policies can set a dangerous precedent globally for internet freedom. Whereas access to food, water, education, and healthcare are clearly protected under the United Nations and other international bodies, laws protecting Internet freedom are still in their infancy.
Misinformation, fake news, and hate speech have ignited violence in Africa in the past and jeopardized elections. These are grave concerns that have forced governments to take legislative measures to counteract them, a challenge further compounded by the rapid pace of technological advancement, but these measures should not come at the expense of political freedoms, nor embolden authoritarian-minded regimes to manipulate the flow of information online for political ends.