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Africa’s case for control of the internet: go with the flow

Segun Oruame was at the World Summit on the Information Society when President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe demanded an immediate end to what he called the US control of the internet.

Africa came to the 'Summit of Solutions' in Tunis with one clear mandate: to demand that control of the internet be made the responsibility of all nations. In the event, it had to be satisfied with what was agreed – the creation of a new forum to discuss the issue.

"You can't have it all at once. It is a step in the right direction," Nigeria's communication minister Cornelius Adebayo said minutes after the Tunis summit had charged UN Secretary General Kofi Annan with the task of setting up an Internet Governance Forum.

There is much international support for Africa's position, encapsulated in South African president Thabo Mbeki's call for internet governance to be "rooted in the UN system". After all, many countries in the southern hemisphere have seen strong agitations for a multilateral approach to the control of the internet.

Currently, the internet is managed by ICANN – the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers – on behalf of the world's countries. The snag is that on certain important matters, it has to seek the approval of the US Department of Commerce. Africa was asking for a new administrative structure where control would shift to the jurisdiction of the UN.

With a population of 850 million and a Gross National Income that averages $350 per capita, Africa is at the bottom of world's economy and the least developed in terms of ICT infrastructures. It is also the continent with the least internet penetration. This has prompted demands for Africa to focus on financing the digital divide, in order to make access to ICTs more affordable, rather than expend energy on internet governance.

"There is not much that can be achieved now in terms of sharing control of the internet, though that is much desired. We should not expect the US to give up its control of the internet – not now when it is more concerned about security than ever," said Dr Chris Nwannenna, President of Nigeria Computer Society (NCS), the biggest African organisation for computer professionals.

Rather, Nwannenna thought, Africa should concentrate on areas where it can get "immediate concessions and achieve results" – areas such as non-proprietary software and funding for ICT initiatives.

But President Mugabe of Zimbabwe would have none of that. He thought all the issues were intertwined – efforts to close the digital divide and getting a fairer deal for Africa in the area of non-proprietary software would make no sense if the issue of internet governance were not addressed first. Everything depended on how much control African and other governments had in the administration of the internet.

"The bully boy mentality must be challenged," he told an audience where more than half the continent's leaders were in attendance. "No country should constitute a policeman on internet governance."

Nigeria and Ghana were rather more moderate. "We want to steer a middle course, working with countries that have a common position with the continent," said Nigeria's Adebayo. "Nigeria does not believe that a sudden and revolutionary takeover of the web was practicable or even desirable."

Alhaji Aliu Mahama, Vice President of Ghana, expressed similar sentiments, but added that multilateral control and ownership of the internet was inevitable.

Africa came to Tunis with all the fury associated with the debate on internet governance, fully prepared to join in the battle. But it ended day one of WSIS II on a calm note, despite the fiery utterances by Mugabe. African governments now appear to be convinced that the UN Secretary General will be able to resolve the knotty issue of internet governance.

Segun Oruame is Editor of IT Edge, Nigeria.

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