How to protect African data from digital colonisers
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Africa lost its natural resources during the past (1st, 2nd, and 3rd) industrial revolutions and this trend will continue, during the 4th Industrial Revolution, unless something is done about it. During the 4th Industrial Revolution, the African continent will not lose natural resources but virtual resources such as its data and information that will be key during this era. In response, the South African government is starting to do something about this imminent threat to the future of the African Digital economy. On 1 April 2021, the Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, published a Draft National Data and Cloud Policy (Draft Policy) together with an invitation for interested parties to submit written submissions to the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies within 30 business days of publication of the Draft Policy, by 18 May 2021.
Why such a policy intervention is necessary? In what sense are African countries, including South Africa, likely to lose their resources?
Simply put, the future of the economy will be largely driven by data and information. Technologies such as artificial intelligences will require massive data to be effective and useful. Data ownership will be equivalent to owning means of production. As an example, in the health sector, South Africa will need to foresee threatening diseases, develop vaccines, and to develop health solutions that will prevent future pandemics. In the absence of health data ownership, South Africa and other African countries will still depend on foreign countries to develop necessary health solutions. In the health sector alone, the continent may lose out on the health technology economy that will largely depend on health data. Other sectors of the economy will also require data, think education, finance, agriculture, and others. Failure to own data could lead to a situation where decisions about the continent are made elsewhere. Control of operations within the continent could be influenced from other parts of the world. Take Uber as an example, from the US a group of technologists with just a push of a button can control transportation in the continent. Someone at Uber can wake up tomorrow and increase the price of transportation without consulting local transport authorities. They can decide how African societies are transported. All of this is possible without anyone from Uber being present in an African country. In addition, Uber can sell this data to planners who need to understand traffic movement in the African continent. Again, this is possible because Uber has traffic and transportation data at its disposal. Picture the same scenario in other sectors of the economy where the technology is developed and data resides elsewhere. Because of this, it is therefore important for African countries to understand that in the future natural resources will no longer be a source of revenue but virtual resources such as data and more importantly its ownership. European countries understand this as a result they have developed measures to ensure that they own their data. This has moved tech companies such as Microsoft to comply and ensure that they make this possible.
Recently, Microsoft has announced a new pledge for the European Union (EU) and they are calling it EU Data Boundary for the Microsoft Cloud. What this means is that commercial or public sector customers of Microsoft in the EU will be able to process and store all their data in the EU. In other words, Microsoft will not need to move its data outside of the EU. This commitment will apply across all of Microsoft’s core cloud services – Azure, Microsoft 365, and Dynamics 365. Microsoft is beginning work immediately on this added step and will be able to complete it by the end of next year. This step by Microsoft will ensure that Europe keeps its data and is made possible because European leaders can foresee how important data will be in the future. What is stopping the African Union from developing laws that will safeguard the data sovereignty of the African continent?
Steps by the South African government in this regard should be considered by other African countries to avoid a loss of data control. The following key suggested policy interventions indicate that South Africa is starting to take data seriously. According to the draft policy, the plan is to establish a single data regulatory authority as well as an Advisory Council comprising members from the public, private and academic sectors to advise on data management standards, best practices, guidelines, and to develop a regulatory framework to manage data and cloud services. As expected, these steps are being challenged by those who prefer the current status quo.
Some have accused the South African government of trying to violate data privacy and they go on to indicate that these steps will threaten foreign investment. The European attempt at protecting its data sovereignty has not threatened investment so far instead it is supported across the globe. Africa should do whatever it takes to ensure that what happened with its natural resources will not happen with its virtual resources, its data, and other key resources of the 4th Industrial Revolution.