Kenya Government officials skip the Internet Governance Forum

The fifth Kenya Internet Governance Forum was held quietly in Nairobi two weeks ago, without government representation for the second year running.   Reports John Walubengo

Whereas the government is not obliged to attend all ICT functions, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is a UN-sanctioned forum held to deliberate on contemporary and emerging issues affecting the development of the Internet.

The forum is unique in that it adopts the open and bottom-up approach, where each stakeholder or participant engages on an equal footing.

In other words, representatives from civil society, media, academia, the ICT industry and government, amongst other stakeholders, debate the issues within an environment that does not favour any of them.

This is in stark contrast to the traditional way of governance, where governments obviously always have a final say on matters of national importance.

Perhaps this “equal-footing” approach explains the absence of government representation at recent Internet governance forums.

Their absence denied the forum an important stakeholder, at a time when issues ranging from data privacy and cybersecurity to network neutrality and Internet affordability were discussed.

PRIVACY

Data privacy is becoming increasingly important as Kenya continues to get digitised.

At the moment, there are multiple government digitisation projects in the pipeline that would place detailed digital information about citizens in a shared environment for better service delivery.

Whereas the benefits are beyond debate, protection, or ensuring that this information is not abused, or used for purposes other than those for which it was originally collected, is highly contentious.

This is not specific to Kenya. It is a global discussion that need our local understanding and deliberation.

CYBERSECURITY

Cybersecurity defines the extent to which our online services are assured of confidentiality, integrity and availability. Again, at an enterprise or organisational level, most entities have these issues figured out, but at national level there is need to reinforce cyberspace through relevant policy, legislative and regulatory interventions.

Imagine driving the latest Volvo model (considered very safe) on a single-lane road, full of potholes, carjackers, overspeeding matatus and drunken drivers. The inbuilt safety of the Volvo becomes irrelevant because sooner rather than later, you’ll get hit.

That is the false sense of digital security the private sector enjoys if we fail to provide an overarching cybersecurity framework at national level.

Indeed something seems to be happening, considering that a national cybersecurity strategy was recently launched followed up by the National CERT. However, the failure of government to send representatives to the forum represents a missed opportunity on their part in terms of engaging with other stakeholders.

NET NEUTRALITY

Network neutrality, or Net neutrality as it is popularly known, may seem too far-fetched to be on our local agenda, but it is not.

The Net neutrality debate arose when some traditional telecommunication providers attempted to charge some of their bandwidth-hungry customers extra fees based on the activities these customers engaged in.

The typical charging mechanism on the Internet is based purely on bandwidth consumed. However, some customers such as media houses and video content providers are likely to benefit more from such an arrangement than, say, an individual user doing basic email over the shared bandwidth pipe.

Telecommunications companies have tried to introduce a charging mechanism based on the “type” rather than just the “size” of messages passing through the shared bandwidth. Of course content providers have fought back, arguing that this would introduce some discrimination within an Internet market whose growth has largely been fuelled by the non-discriminatory nature of data exchange.

Charging content providers more per unit bandwidth sold will result in consumers paying more to access certain websites — since the extra charge paid up will simply be pushed down to the consumers.

AFFORDABILITY

Internet access and affordability remains a standing agenda item in the Internet Governance Forum. How to make broadband Internet services widely available, and affordable, to an average population that struggles to live on one meal a day remains a big challenge.

A continuous and intricate trade-off between investor returns vis-a-vis consumer and public interest will continue to be an interesting discussion over the next couple of years.

These are but a few items that were deliberated upon while government officials kept away from the local Internet Governance Forum.

The final report from the discussion is expected to find its way through the East African, the African, and finally the Global Internet Governance forum in Istanbul, Turkey, in September 2014.

Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at the Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT. jwalubengo@mmu.ac.ke Twitter:@jwalu

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