Digitisation is no longer something in the distant future but an everyday reality, even in Africa, which is still struggling to modernise its ageing telecommunications infrastructure.
Although digitisation as a transformative social process has been in full swing globally for a long time, it accelerated at a frantic pace during the Covid-19 pandemic.
During the past three years, almost everyone across the world has become increasingly dependent on digital technologies for financial transactions, socialisation, education, political engagement, news and information, remote working, and religious meetings.
This is not to ignore the persistence of digital inequalities and divide in Africa. There is no denying that social media platforms play a crucial role in providing a space for public debates. These platforms have created a wide array of forums for public communication, citizen engagement, news consumption and sentiment analysis.
Digital platforms can be conceptualised as marketspaces, public spheres, infrastructures, and online civic spaces. In this article, the concepts such as ‘digital spaces’ and ‘digital platforms’ are used interchangeably .
Digital spaces/platforms as planetary infrastructures (networks, systems, technologies) are defined with distinctive affordances, cultures, operational logics, and socio-technical features.
Digital spaces such as YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, WhatsApp and Twitter are compatible planetary infrastructures characterised by ‘a convergence of different systems, protocols, and networks.’
The internet and its ancillary digital technologies only became a major technological organising force towards the mid-1990s and early 2000s. At that time, the internet was seen as an enabler for commerce and business operations. During its formative years, the cost of accessing the internet was extremely high throughout Africa.
State-owned telecommunication operators predominantly monopolised the industry. The internet as a service was treated as a luxury for the rich and famous.
The situation changed significantly with the liberalisation of the telecommunications industry in the late 1990s. This coincided with the mass permeation of the internet and mobile telephony into Africans’ everyday lives.
Lethargic state-owned internet and mobile service providers found it difficult to compete with agile and innovative privately owned telecommunication operators. Slowly but surely, the telecommunications industry was reconfigured.
Moreover, instead of relying on letters, telegrams, faxes and fixed telephone lines, new and better channels of communication began to take shape. These new communication channels (such as emails, blogs and readers’ comment sections) allowed previously passive information consumers to communicate back to the sender. Thus, ‘people formerly known as audience’ were presented with an opportunity to express their voice.
Furthermore, digital spaces complement and supplant traditional physical spaces in unprecedented ways. Political campaigns are mediated mainly by digital platforms. Digital intermediaries generally power economic transactions. Socialisation takes place online.
Dating has also migrated online, with face-to-face meetings relegated to secondary status. All these societal transformations highlight the need to acknowledge the importance of digital rights in an environment where ‘the digital’ is now the gateway through which life is experienced, performed, memorialised and mediated.
Although internet access is recognised as an inalienable right in other jurisdictions, digital rights are increasingly protected, even according to constitutional standards through legislative and judicial interpretation.
Digital rights refer to a set of universal human rights that ensures everybody – regardless of their gender, age, race, sexuality, and other social stratification variables – has equal access to an open internet that is governed in an inclusive, accountable, and transparent manner to ensure peoples’ fundamental freedoms and rights.
In short, digital rights are simply human rights in the digital space. They are concerned with ensuring citizens have access to information and freedom of expression in a safe space that respects privacy and security. Digital rights are not only concerned about privacy and security.
Besides some examples of digital rights such as privacy and security, it is equally relevant to talk of universal and equal access, freedom of expression, information and communication, data protection, right to anonymity, right to be forgotten, protection of minors, intellectual property rights, and cybersecurity as constitutive of a broader bundle of rights in the digital age.
The violations of these digital rights are more pronounced in the platformed world, where platform companies regularly share personal and confidential data with third parties, including advertisers and national governments.
Digital rights ensure that citizens are protected from structural and systemic harms and freedoms associated with the digital world. The call is meant to ensure control, autonomy, and agency of humans while protecting them against the privatisation, monopolisation, commodification, and monetisation of their personal data and digital footprints.
Digital rights are crucial for safeguarding free expression online. They are also invaluable for enabling citizens to freely associate, assemble, and access various services online. Unfortunately, these rights are also curtailed by draconian laws and regulations.
Admire Mare is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.