Africa’s Active Participation in Internet Governance: A Vital Key To The Realization of NEPAD Goals (Part 1)

This was written in 2005 but still very relevant. Internet Governance is very important for us as a nation and continent. The need to understand it is very big and as an IG advocate, I have the responsibility to share the news. Please enjoy the first part.

Africa has always been marginalized in all aspects of world economy and politics. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) was conceived by African heads of state as a development framework aimed at arresting and correcting the downward trend and put Africa firmly on a relevant position in World development agenda .

One important area that Africa needs to get involved to realize the NEPAD goals is Internet Governance. The Internet also known as the “information highway” began around 1969 as a government sponsored network called ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network). It was used for the sole purpose of linking government research centers with university researchers, eventually, establishing the Internet protocols TCP/IP, which we still use today.

The Internet however only exploded in terms of growth in the 1980’s, when a number of public and private networks joined in like colleges, businesses and agencies . The relevance of the Internet is no more in question. The growing awareness of the social, economic and political impact of the internet on society has brought the question of Internet Governance into sharper focus. As of early 2005, the Internet has the following statistics:
• An estimated 750 million users worldwide.
• At least $1 billion electronics commerce turnover which is projected to rise rapidly.
• The Internet has a major social impact in many fields of human endeavor including education, health, governance and others.
• Cyber crime such as fraud, gambling, pornography and ID theft.
• Misuse and abuse in the form of malicious codes and spam.

Though the Internet was a monopoly of the United States of America because it has it origins from there, but it has become a global phenomenon and Africa is still left behind in its governance. This is a very disturbing trend and African leaders need to step up their games to give Africa a relevant position in the information super highway.

Internet governance has been a very complex phenomenon, in actual fact- it has been very difficult to give it a proper definition because of its multi-stakeholder nature. The World Society on the Information Society (WSIS) proposed a number of actions including the establishment of a Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG). The WGIG is to ensure a mechanism for the full participation of governments, private sector, civil society and relevant inter-governmental organizations to investigate and make proposals for action on the governance of the Internet. The WGIG is also given the mandate to perform the following roles:

• Come up with a working definition for Internet Governance.
• Develop a common understanding of the respective roles of the respective stakeholders.
• Prepare a report of their activities in the 2005 WSIS meeting in Tunisia 2005.
If Africa wants to have a very relevant role in the governance of the most important media that has changed the face of the world, there must be a proactive effort by critically looking at all the intricacies of Internet Governance and how to push a very good position in Tunisia.

The Very Complex Nature of Internet Governance

We need to recognize that Internet Governance means different things to different people. It is like a big jigsaw puzzle; not easy to put together. The first contending issue comes from the two words “Internet and Governance”.
The word Internet seems vague to some people who believe that the term Information and Communication Technology or Information Society would have been more appropriate due to their inclusive nature, but the argument for the word “Internet” is holding grounds since it is taking over some conventional issues like telephony. Voice over IP is gradually taking over from the conventional telephone system.

Some also believe that the word governance seems to give governments the idea that they have the most important role to play than other stakeholders in governing the Internet.
There is a narrow approach to Internet Governance which focuses on the technical part, mainly infrastructure that positions ICANN as the key actor. The broad approach is beyond infrastructure but addresses other legal, economic, development and socio-cultural issues.

Basically, we should address Internet Governance using the following broad dimensions: Infrastructure and Standardization, Legal, Economic, Developmental and Socio-Cultural.
The next few pages will be focused on clarifying these dimensions and how Africa should make impact and show its needs.

Infrastructure and Standardization:

This involves issues relating to the telecommunication infrastructure through which all Internet traffic flows, technical standards and services (TCP/IP, SSL) and Content/Application Standards (HTML, XML).
The US government has a near-monopolistic grab on this area of Internet governance. Out of the 13 root servers in the world, 10 are in the United States.

The US Department of Commerce (DOC) approves changes to the root servers; hence if the US government wishes to cause chaos in the cyber space, they can easily do this. Africa should rise up to this challenge by improving its telecommunication and electricity generation; this will give us a chance to ask for an equal geographical distribution of the root servers.

As a way to encourage local contents, Africans must support the Internationalized Domain Names (IDN) and Native Language Internet Address (NLIA) systems. This will give us the opportunity to have domain names in Zulu, Hausa and other languages. China and other Asian countries are already winning this war, so why can’t we?

Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and International Assigned Names Authority (IANA) though look like global entities judging from their name but they are really US government agencies. As much as we appreciate the fact that the Internet started from the US; we should also remember that it has grown to a level where one country cannot be controlling it. I believe that Africa should rise up to the challenge and push for either a new body that will be all inclusive or a regional body to take over ICANN’s role.

A paradox that is playing itself out is the fact that small and poor countries subsidize Internet system for the developed countries. This is very selfish of those countries who are always talking of helping small countries to bridge the digital divide. African countries should start thinking of using Internet Exchange Points (IXP) to reduce the cost of bandwidth.

Another very important aspect is the use of the Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) in fighting cyber squatting. African countries have started using their country code top level domain names and before long, disputes will start. There should be a conscious effort to adapt the UDRP to our specific needs.

(To be continued)