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How African governments at different stages of internet development approach the cultivation of online users: the cases of Chad and The Gambia

September 11, 2013  »  NewsNo Comment

Some African nations have a smaller online media presence than others. On top of that, telecoms news is often less of a focus than a subject like politics. Therefore, to read news of internet happenings in The Gambia and Chad on the same day (Sept. 11) immediately piqued our interest. Both are progressive in some form, but at the same time highlight just how differently African nations are handling internet progress.

Chad plans on strengthening national fibre networks to improve mobile internet cost and access. The country acknowledges its internet shortcomings and expresses a need to catch up with its regional neighbors. Late to the game, but promising nonetheless.

On the other hand, The Gambia is enforcing rules for internet access in internet cafes. To some extent, a stricter user code of conduct is good; the government should keep citizens safe from malicious online content. It’s also positive how the regulator held a forum with internet cafe owners to discuss changes to business licensing. On the other hand, The Gambia is placing restrictions on what types of content users can publicly access.

Based on internet engagement statistics, Chad isn’t at the point of where public online limitations like those in The Gambia are deemed necessary. Except Chad’s constitution guarantees media freedom, yet multiple bloggers have been arrested in recent years. Ignoring the fact that relatively few Chadians have internet access, Chad’s leaders would be forward-thinking to enact proper legal framework to protect online users (including those inclined to speak out against the government). Gambian lawmakers, for their part, would be wise to focus on guidelines to encourage local content generation rather than setting a overbearing tone around online activity.

Chad

Chinese news agency Xinhua reported on the Chadian government’s plans to strengthen national fibre optic infrastructure. After lagging behind the rest of Africa, and much of Central Africa, the government acknowledges the Ministry for Posts and Information & Communication Technologies acknowledges need to give Chadians cheaper internet while increasing the bandwidth available for mobile networks. Within five years, the hope is that such a project will bring the internet penetration rate from around 2% to 8% – on par with Gabon.

“Chad intends to compensate for the delay that it has experienced vis-a-vis its peers in the development of telecommunication infrastructures and become a hub in the sector.” – PNTIC Ministry secretary general

The ambitious plan, to involve public and private operators in addition to financial donors, will connect Chad’s fibre to Sudan, Nigeria, Niger, and Central African Republic. Major towns in Chad will also get fibre links. The initiative is a step forward for Chad and follows the Central African Backbone which filled a void in terrestrial connectivity in nations like Chad, Cameroon, and Central African Republic. Still, skills training and awareness of the benefits of the internet are needed in conjunction with such a costly infrastructure-building program. (Also, the article from Xinhua may be overly optimistic as it attempts to attract Chinese investment to the region. The telecoms market in Chad is arguably one of the most challenging non-monopolies in Africa.)

The Gambia

The West African nation continues its crackdown on free use of the internet. Earlier this year the regulatory agency banned the commercial use of VoIP services from internet cafes. In June, the Head of Civil Service and Minister of Presidential Affairs told Gambians to avoid speaking out against the government online after the National Assembly passed a ball restricting the use of the internet.

The trifecta of conservative rulings is now complete as Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) is now requiring internet cafe owners to abide by strict rules. Owners in violation will lose face license suspension or revocation.

A few requirements make perfect sense:

  • Anti-virus software must be installed on all computers
  • Pornographic websites are banned
  • Cafes must display a sign showing pornographic websites are prohibited

Others are less sensible and even vague:

  • Dating websites are forbidden in internet cafes
  • Certain bandwidth requirements are necessary (not specified)
  • “Prohibited information” is banned
  • VoIP services are not allowed in cafes (this was re-iterated)

Time will tell how PURA enforces these new requirements. Odds are owners will have some leeway in allowing customers to access dating websites and the ill-defined “prohibited information”.