Data colonialism, digital rights,
and the role of civil society
– an interview with Nanjala
Nyabola and Antonia Baskakov

What is the value of data? In the shadow of advancing digitalization, we need strong civil societies that are also heard. A double interview with Nanjala Nyabola and Antonia Baskakov about female tech pioneers in farmers’ markets, unseen work and Steve Jobs.


The European Union is a frontrunner in data privacy regulation, with many countries choosing to adapt similar approaches. EU has set a clear focus on the aspect of data as a human right. From your perspective – is this an approach for African countries?

Nanjala Nyabola: Global leaders have different approaches. The American approach favors a free flow of data and its commercialization – and that is at the moment the dominant approach because of the size of the American companies and the influence they have. The Chinese approach is very state driven and doesn’t really recognize the idea of digital human rights. So, the data’s human rights approach is a really good middle ground because it recognizes the commercial value of data and that building of software industries is important; it can actually have a significant economic impact. But in the same time, it is recognizing that when the data is extracted from people, there are human rights implications in that. And there are responsibilities that come from that. I think, it will have to reflect the specific historical experiences of different regions.


Ms. Baskakov, you have the German, the European perspective. Do you think that the architecture that has been formulated by the EU, should be adopted by the rest of the world?

Antonia Baskakov: Coming from a European background, I think that my perspective will be Eurocentric. I also believe that we have to be mindful of the fact that there is a lot of diversity on the African continent. I don’t think I can possibly say what is good for 54 countries. But I agree with what has been said about the importance of data. Data can be incredibly valuable to drive progress when it comes to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the goals set out in the AU-Agenda 2063 both of which focus on sustainable development and inclusive growth. To be truly inclusive, the human rights dimension has to be included in the thought process. The principle of data sovereignty is a great start. From my perspective, implementation will differ from country to country and context. There is a need for strong institutions which backed up with resources and founded on principles like transparency, justice and accountability But the most valuable guidance on the implementation of the principle of data sovereignty will come from the civil society actors who’ve been active in this field for years.


The strong institutions – do they exist in African countries in order to protect human rights dimensions of data collection?

Nanjala Nyabola: It is important to recognize that there are distinctions between different African countries and their digital architectures. In Kenya, it was an European company that was building the architecture, and the Kenyan civil society said: This does not rise to the standard that reflects our local politics and interests. There was an investigation that demanded the strengthening of the data governance. The strength of the civil society was part of strengthening the data protection, privacy, governance, architecture in Kenya. That sort of happened in South Africa, too – and in Botswana: There is a strong civil society push even though the government has so far been unresponsive. And the similar you see in Zimbabwe, in Ghana, in Senegal. But it is not uniform. There are countries that for social, structural, political reasons don’t have the capacities built, that architecture still is experiencing the risks harms of rapid digitalization. This is where we as people who are working in this space are really counting on the African Union (AU) to sort of work with the countries that are already figuring these things out to try and develop a regional mechanism that provides cover for the countries that don’t have the capacities to do it for themselves. It is definitely not a one-size-fits-it-all-answer.


What about the role of the African Union – will it be significant?

Nanjala Nyabola: It can be and it should be. What we really need to see from the African Union is the commitment to listening to African people and African civil society that has been working. You know, African people have been at the forefront of the digital rights work. In the Kenyan example, it goes back to 2006: Kenyans were sending and receiving money on their mobile phones before anybody else in the world. And there has been a structure that was built to make that happen and make it happen safely. Hence, there has been lessons that have implication in the region and around the world. What the African Union is really struggling with is that there is this gap between the institution and the people. And the lessons that we are consolidating in the local context are not reflected in the way policies are being made in Addis Abeba, the headquarters of the AU. Its policy is more responsive to what is happening in other parts of the world. It is a national approach instead of what we can learn from the people in the continent. We teach the people all over the world – why can’t we have the similar opportunities to extend these lessons at home?

What we really need to see from the African Union is the commitment to listening to African people and African civil society that has been working. You know, African people have been at the forefront of the digital rights work.

Nanjala Nyabola, Writer, Researcher, Policy Advocate

Antonia Baskakov: Strengthening civil societies has to go hand in hand with regulating big tech and focusing data protection and sovereignty. If we don’t have some kind of continental framework data will also not be secure as it crosses borders. That is why we need an overarching framework where local frameworks can be embedded in. Another aspect that is relevant: When we look at Facebook’s Free Basic – one reason why Facebook can benefit so much from it is that in some countries it can save the data of its users without obtaining their consent. In 61% of the African countries there is regulation. When it comes to data protection, there are still countries with no laws that safeguard user data. This also means that huge corporations from the Global North, mainly based in the US, are able to decide what data politics looks like in countries on the African continent.

Strengthening civil societies has to go hand in hand with regulating big tech and focusing data protection and sovereignty. If we don’t have some kind of continental framework data will also not be secure as it crosses borders.

Antonia Baskakov, Youth Envoy ITU & Policy and Project Management Coordinator at ONE

Without any regulation – how does your best-case scenario look like for African economies and societies?

Antonia Baskakov: In my opinion, there is no best-case scenario without regulating big tech Voluntary commitment to human rights does not work, we have seen that in the past. At the very least the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights need to be mandatory

Nanjala Nyabola: There is a common misperception that it is only the US companies that are triggering the necessities for downstream regulation. For example, our downstream regulation in Kenya with data protection was triggered by a French company. So, even when we see Europe, I think we need to be careful that even though the EU might have certain policy approaches – are these policy approaches consistent within the individual European countries and how do they relate to various African contexts? So, the big pushes that we have seen in Kenya, in the Central African Republic, are responses to European companies. There also has to be a matching effort to make these regulations make sense within Europe and with Europe in the world. What the EU is doing is one thing and what European companies are doing is something else.


Ms. Baskakov, when you don’t have a best-case-scenario – what about a worst-case-scenario?

Antonia Baskakov: Data politics is currently being dominated and shaped primarily by  Venture Capitalists (VCs) and corporations and there is no human rights perspective in that. Data colonialism makes it difficult for African countries to develop and expand their own sustainable digital infrastructures based on their own data sets. The likelihood is high that the datasets have already been used and appropriated by companies based in the Global North. Those corporations have the most users, the most data and the best foundation to develop the best products and services and improve existing ones. Distribution of data plays a critical role in creating and maintaining dependencies. Not only is there an imbalance of power now, but the groundwork is already being laid to keep it that way.


How can we put pressure on companies in the Global North?  

Nanjala Nyabola: A lot of the work that I do and we do in our networks is working directly with people so that the most important thing is that people can articulate the kind of digital future they want. We put the tools in people’s hands to make sure that they understand the implications of what is happening and that they be able to decide and put pressure. You can put commercial pressure, you can boycott companies, you can elect people into government, put pressure on legislation to pass certain rules. But these pressure points make only sense if the society is adequately informed and ready to be engaged with that. When the Free Basics campaigning happened, part of the problem was that people did not know what Free Basics was. They just bought a phone and it was there – without any communication about. I did not ask for it. Free Basic’s pattern was very paternalistic, a western VC model which is ”We know best and we teach people how to do things”. Hence, there was a lot of civil society push, a lot of awareness raising. And some countries managed to get a little bit of pushback. The decisive question is: What kind of partnerships do we need to be able to articulate a positive digital future for Africa as part of the world and not for Africa as this abstract place that is removed from the world?


So what can the Global North learn from African lessons?

Nanjala Nyabola: One thing that we have learned in the last 15 years is: The challenges of misinformation, the social media, the use of private capital to influence political debates – all of these practices that western countries are having really deep inside now were tested in African audiences first. We as civil society in Africa had to develop ways of dealing with that. For a long time it felt like you were talking to yourself (she laughs), because people said: “Oh, that is just a weird development, it is not really a global thing”; well, now it is a global thing.


The datafication does not only result in data colonialism, at the same time it creates new and innovative business models and opportunities for the local economy. Where do you see the role of women in this new digital economy – as a source and subject of data, but also as user and possibly processor?

Antonia Baskakov: While I realize the potential of the digital economy, but it is also just a representation of the economy in a broader sense which is based on extreme inequalities at so many levels – and gender inequality is one of those levels. Even if women of the Global South would have the same access to the digital economy as women of the Global North, the digital divide would continue to persist. Studies show that globally speaking men are 21% more likely to be online, and when we look to low-income countries that number rises to 52%. Adding on to that, women have structurally less access to networks, funding, and education, including digital education. On top of that, women spent disproportionately more time on care work. We need to address all those factors to make sure that the potential of the digital economy is realized for everyone.


Any ideas for changes?

Antonia Baskakov: I strongly believe in taxing big tech companies and using that money to create better care infrastructures – this would be one way to redistribute the profits of the digital economy more equally and equitably. We have to understand that women are key drivers of the economy both online and offline and just because that work isn’t being reflected in the GDP doesn’t mean that it is not existing. This is a general problem. Low-income-countries have lost one trillion US-Dollars in the past 10 years because of this inequality of access to the Internet – and the digital economy.

Nanlaja Nyabola: I agree with the conclusion, but I disagree with some of the premises of the argument. Does everybody need to be online? It has to function as any other economic sector: If people are interested then they should be able to with little impediments and little structural exclusions. Some people might want to opt out. When you are a farmer in a rural community and you have a reasonable quality of life and you don’t need to be online, then you shouldn’t be forced to go online. The second piece is: Most people who connect to the internet are connecting with their mobile phones. And there is a stark gendered mobile phone ownership. 60% of women to 100% of men are having them. And young women and girls are most likely excluded if there is a family phone. This had serious implications for example during the pandemic when teaching went online and it meant that in many countries it went to the mobile phone – and young girls were specifically vulnerable to not having access to education. After the pandemic, many of them did not go back to school. That is a separate argument that needs to be addressed on its own terms and not necessarily as this blanket idea of everybody must be connected. Again, we have to be very nuanced about the regional context.


Have you an example for that?

Nanjala Nyabola: Sure, why was mobile money successful in Kenya? A big driver of that is women. Most of the small and medium enterprises in the country are owned by women. These were seeking micro loans, borrowing in the morning, paying off the loan at the end of the day. So it comes to everyday transactions, and mobile money transfers amounted to one third of the GDP in 2017. When we think of digital entrepreneurs in Kenya, most of us usually don’t think of the women who work in the markets with their mobile phones. There is no one model.

Antonia Baskakov: I want to add an example that just came to my mind. Even when we look at the women that are currently online and participating in e-commerce specifically, studies have shown that women are less likely to sell products on third-party-e-commerce platforms because of the  higher commissions charged by these platforms Hence, they try to sell their products on their own websites with smaller reach and less profit . So, even when we look at those who want to participate, there are significant differences that are a result of structural inequalities – in this case lack of funding for women founders.


What would be on your wish list for the next round of political discussions and decisions on the continent?

Nanjala Nyabola: I would really love to see the AU office in digitalization engage better with African civil society and with the works that is being done. There are so many really good people in this space doing really important work – part of the challenge is that many of them are working in opposition to their governments and they are doing it as from a place of vulnerability. You know, when the General Data Protection Regulation was created in Germany it wasn’t just a product of bureaucrats but there were extensive consultations and conversations with people from the civil society. The risk we are facing now is that the digitalization policy is going to have a lot of aspirations that are not grounded. Hence, my wish list is: How can we have meaningful engagement and conversation? Some of us acted in the African digital rights space for a long time, since 2005 – but they are not invited to make those lessons applicable in a bigger context.

Antonia Baskakov: There are a lot of institutions and forums where meaningful engagement can take place, but we need to focus on making them more accessible and inclusive to make sure they serve all not just the few. Efforts have been made but we need more of those efforts and a focus, and willingness to be truly inclusive of all voices. One example is the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Global Youth Summit which took place earlier  this year – a great first step towards listening to youth, a group that is currently marginalized in most decision-making processes. Different voices from all over the world were invited, but there was no funding available to cover the cost of travel and attendance for everyone. I realized that efforts to include traditionally marginalized groups such as youth often not just start but also end with an invitation which made me understand the importance of understanding the context and combined factors that make an attendance and meaningful engagement in decision-processes impossible for those groups.

Nanjala Nyabola

Writer, Researcher, Policy Advocate

Nanjala Nyabola (JD, Harvard) is a writer, researcher and policy advocate. Her work focuses on the intersection between technology, politics, media and society. She publishes frequently in academic and non-academic platforms as a commentator and analyst. She is the founder of the Kiswahili Digital Rights Project, a member of the United Nations Secretary General’s High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism, and a founding member of the Africa Digital Rights Network (ADRN). Find more about Nanjala Nyabola and her work here.

Antonia Baskakov

Youth Envoy ITU & Policy and Project Management Coordinator at ONE

Antonia Baskakov is a Youth Envoy for the United Nations International Telecommunication Union and works for ONE, an international NGO focused on ending extreme poverty and preventable diseases by 2030. Prior to ONE, she was the Strategic Advisor to the Executive Director of the Center for Feminist Foreign Policy and has worked in a variety of human rights-related fields, including legal research at Berkeley Law School and Stanford Law School.

The interview has been conducted by Jan Rübel of Zeitenspiegel Reportagen.

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