CAPE TOWN - Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?” - this was a tweet from a well-known Facebook board-member and investor, Marc Andreessen.
Andreessen’s comment came after reports claimed that the Indian tech community was against Internet.org (Free Basics), a free internet programme. The programme would have forced people in India to access Facebook or Facebook approved websites only - a direct violation of access to the internet broadly and freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation.
The war between Facebook and the tech community was ultimately resolved in court through a legal challenge by India's Telecoms regulator, which ruled in favour of net neutrality, dealing a blow to the Facebook programme and marking the end of an intense and very public 11-month national debate.
This led to new regulations that were published by India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority (Trai), banning differential pricing for data services and therefore enabling smaller firms to compete with established companies, including Facebook. The India and Facebook case study on free internet offers important lessons to the African continent on how to deal with tech giants that behave in the same manner in the continent.
Recently, Facebook violated the rights of its users by making it possible for a data company to use user data without permission. The data was obtained by Cambridge psychology professor Aleksandr Kogan and given to the affiliated behaviour research firm Strategic Communication Laboratories against Facebook’s own terms of service. The actions of the firm, which denies any wrongdoing, has kicked up a massive debate over Facebook’s failures to police its platform and its responsibility to both user privacy and the institution of democracy itself.
It is alleged that the Cambridge Analytica used this data to influence elections in the US. Based on this violation, law makers in the US have called Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to account.
The European legislators also want companies such as Facebook to be regulated in the same way as other institutions, such as banks. Reports also alleged that one of the countries that may have been affected by similar data violation is Kenya.
Governance institutions around the world are up in arms about what Facebook has allowed with users' data.
The question that every African should ask himself or herself is what is the African Union (AU) doing about Facebook knowing what has happened in other parts of the world? What should African technologists and technology companies do in response? So far the response has been dismal as there’s little reaction to these developments.
The data crisis in the world should not go to waste. It should inspire technology companies that are rooted in the continent to create an alternative to Facebook and embrace African values in how it treats the data of Africans.
Action in this regard is critical. African technology companies must create an alternative to Facebook to protect the continent from future manipulation of data.
As long as Africans are using Facebook their data resides outside of the African continent. There’s no single country in the African continent that can touch the data of Africans on Facebook.
As long as the African data sits within Facebook warehouses, the US social network has power over the continent.
The Cambridge Analytica experience should serve as a warning for those who care about the data within Africa.
The AU should take the necessary steps to govern access to African data immediately if they want to avoid future manipulations of elections and other aspects of African lives. Andreessen could have tweeted: “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the African people for decades. Why stop now?”
The African tech community should work hard to make sure that such tweets can never be tweeted about progress and development in the continent by creating its own future now.
Wesley Diphoko is the founder of Kaya Labs. He serves as the chairperson of the IEEE Open Data Initiative - Industry Connections Programme.
- BUSINESS REPORT