Digital Sovereignty in Africa: An Open Syllabus

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

This open curriculum was created for the 2021 Research Sprint on African narratives on Digital Sovereignty. The sprint brought together researchers and professionals from academia, industry and civil society from all over the world to collaborate on issues of digital sovereignty and to discuss how African States can promote digital governance, and accountable transitions to the digital economy. This involved a careful study of the challenges of data extraction and commodification, rising costs of innovation, an influx of predatory firms, the loss of privacy, linguistic and cultural exclusion, loss of comparative advantages in business, technology-led unemployment, and autonomy in the digital economy.

Readers are encouraged to benefit from this collection of materials to create their own courses, and to study the development of African perspectives on digital sovereignty.

Course Description[edit | edit source]

While sovereignty is not a new concept, it is one that is increasing in use in the context of the digital economy. Digital sovereignty, simply put, refers to how governments can articulate a national vision of economic independence and development, while at the same time promoting the protection of citizens’ data. When narrowly understood, digital sovereignty is interpreted to mean states reasserting control and promoting their authority over the internet. More broadly, it could be used to encompass personal autonomy and choice, freedom in the internet era, and human rights. From the perspective of the global South, however, a better way to look at digital sovereignty might be to understand it as a means to reinvigorate developmental freedom of states and citizens alike in the digital era. This broadens the concept to include within its fold efforts to promote economic and technological autonomy for the developing world, in ways that empower citizens and States alike, promoting plurality of options, enabling contextualisation and facilitating the inclusion of socio-political, cultural and linguistic priorities.

This syllabus unpacks the notion of digital sovereignty itself and its relevance; and explores what digital sovereignty means in the global South in general, and in the African context in particular, with the intent of extracting the key elements of a pan-African narrative on digital sovereignty.

The primary focus is on two fundamental and inter-related sets of questions. First, how does development and economic independence look in the African context? That is, how can data extraction, data use and re-use foster the creation of competitive advantage, innovation and technological learning, enabling local businesses, creating jobs, and promoting structural change in Africa, much like in other parts of the world? Second, what does a new discourse that factors in development as a central component of the data economy look like, taking into account the different starting points of countries as they enter, and engage with data? In answering this, the syllabus addresses questions related to linguistic and cultural heterogeneity in the internet world, a homegrown narrative on privacy and informed consent and the establishment of citizen-state relations for data protection in the African context.

This syllabus brings together the works of various scholars and practitioners reflecting and deliberating an African perspective in a digital world that is increasingly populated by voices from the global North.

Learning Modules[edit | edit source]

The course is divided into seven modules, each dealing with a core theme. Each independent module page contains the discussions on the module, which are an outcome of the research sprint. They also contain external resources which learners will find to be of use. These modules though interdependent can also be studied independently by learners.

Module Topic Brief description
1. Sovereignty in a Localized Digital World What is digital sovereignty and how does it differ from traditional sovereignty? What does it encompass? What are its pitfalls? In this module, we contrast notions of digital sovereignty to inform discussions on ‘sovereignty' and what it means in the context of ‘data’, ‘digital’ and how it relates to the issues we face in terms of digital transformations in the global South in general, and Africa in particular. Mr. Bright Simmons spoke on technohegemony of big-tech, and the need for states to assert digital sovereignty.
2. Successful Digital Transformations This module focuses on the potential for successful digital transformations in Africa. Successful digital transformation requires more than mere economic transformation and goes to the very heart of social organisation and public interest. Taking this as the basis, we will unpack several of the concepts that fall under successful digital transformations, such as technological change, structural change, industrialization, economic and social development, also look at how new digital technologies can promote transformative change, as well as the flipsides that will need to be dealt with. Prof. Wim Naudé who delivered a lecture on the topic argued that ‘successful digital transformations require avoiding digital dystopias’ in the form of platform capitalism and surveillance states. He highlighted how platform capitalism accentuates skill biases, scale biases and capital biases.
3. Using Digital Technologies for Development in Africa Problems associated with digital technologies have become some of the seminal problems of our time. Harnessing their developmental impact is a balancing act. This module looks at the developmental impacts of digital technologies, and what it would take to ensure successful and responsible outcomes, with a focus on specific digital technologies, such as blockchains, drones, IoT and AI for development. Ms. Khadija Abdulla Ali, also known as the ‘Drone Queen’, spoke on the potential of drones for local development in Africa. She drew from her experience in Zanzibar, where she did drone-mapping to aid urban planning, beach grading and creating usable local maps. This was followed by Mr. Manish Raghavan who discussed ‘Machine Learning for Social Good’.
4. Conceptualizing Rights and Responsibilities in the Digital Age The fourth module looks at surveillance and rights in the digital age. It unpacks the methods with which digital technologies are routinely used for social and cultural stereotyping and exclusion in the digital age. Specifically, the module looks at how policing and surveillance can adversely impact the rights of different groups in society, and the role of social media and big data programming in creating/ worsening such vulnerabilities. As a case in point, Mr. Leonard Cortana addressed deep fakes, big data programming and cultural stereotyping in large platforms.
5. Privacy in the Digital Age This module explores at length the question of privacy in different contexts. While privacy has become a key issue across the globe, discussions on it are often dominated by the issues and solutions of the Global North. Whether these privacy discussions ongoing in the USA and the EU are universally applicable, and if not, what do we need to do to have a differentiated discussion on privacy? The session also addresses the question of privacy enforcement in Africa, whether current institutions and frameworks are sufficient, and if not, why not. Prof James S. Wahutu talked on the current discussions on privacy in Africa, emphasising on how self-identity operates in Africa and the Global South where the notion of 'self' is in flux. Focusing on how privacy can be situated in the African context, he drew attention to the communal nature of African communities, and their needs.
6. Digital Access and Digital Equality in Africa This module explores at length two different topics of interest when speaking of digital equality. First, it takes a closer look at the implications of data inequality – defined as the unequal control over data —on not just economic development, but also human agency, and collective self-determination that remains a critical issue in digital sovereignty. This is both a cause and consequence of access. Limited access for Africans to the web and the digital world has designed the internet and its content in the Western mould, further curtailing access. What are the solutions to this circular problem of access? Then, we it takes a look at the question of digital infrastructure provision. We discuss how African countries can leapfrog into the digital age, and whether they can leapfrog, given the state and provision of digital infrastructure in Africa. During the discussions, Prof Thomas Streinz focused on pushing back against the narrative that data is just a resource, emphasising that the ecosystem of data generation - its purpose, use, and the manner in which we govern data as a practice really matters. Prof. Strienz suggested that social relations – especially race, gender, levels of marginalisation – determine what becomes data. Next, Mr. Amadou Diop discussed Africa’s digital infrastructure dependencies and what it means for digital sovereignty. Mr. Diop's lecture focuses on how Africa's ongoing technological transformation will mainly contribute to deepening Africa’s dependencies & vulnerability.
7. Is Digital Sovereignty Possible?: A Techno-Legal Discussion This module explores at length a fundamental question – is digital sovereignty possible? And if so, does it call for a much more fundamental shift of technological and legal paradigms to accommodate the aspirations of other countries and regions, rather than simply discussing the applicability of concepts being used elsewhere? This module tackled the need to reconceptualize our legal and technological paradigms to tackle digital disruptions. Prof. Arewa presented the colonised nature of technology legislations in Africa, emphasising that creating African institutions requires disruption and customizing laws for local settings. Prof. Irene Lo discussed mechanism design for social good, and how technology can be an asset for digital sovereignty efforts. She defined market design as the manner in which rules are set in the marketplace so that the correct resources get to those who need them most. The important question is how we can use digital markets to foster development.

Contributors[edit | edit source]

The program and the curriculum were conceptualised and curated by Berkman Klein Center’s Padmashree Gehl Sampath, drawing on her multi-year project on Development in the Digital Economy at the Center.

Participant Contributors[edit | edit source]

A host of academicians and practitioners animated the discussions during the programme and contributed to the curriculum of the course. These included: Mr. Bright Simons (mPedigree and the IMANI Centre for Policy and Education), Prof Wim Naudé (Cork Univesity), Khadija Abdulla Ali (Drone Pilot, Zanzibar Drone Mapping Initiative), Dr. Manish Raghavan (Cornell University), Leonard Cortana (Tisch School, New York University), Prof James S. Wahutu (New York University), Prof Thomas Streinz (New York University), Mr. Amadou Diop (MNS Consulting), Prof Olufunmilayo Arewa (Temple University), and Prof Irene Lo (Stanford University) for their time and contributions. In the first week, Mr. Bright Simons spoke on the "limits of techno-hegemony”, and Prof Wim Naudé discussed “successful digital transformations” by arguing that ‘successful digital transformations require avoiding digital dystopias’. In the second week, Ms. Khadija Abdulla Ali discussed how drones can be used for local development in Africa, using her experience in the drone-mapping initiative in Zanzibar, and Mr. Manish Raghavan discussed ‘Machine Learning for Social Good’. This was followed by Mr. Leonard Cortana spoke about his latest work on deep fakes, big data programming and cultural stereotypes in the third week. For the discussion on a privacy narrative for Africa, Prof James S. Wahutu gave a presentation on “What’s the discussion of privacy in Africa?”. In the final weeks of the course, Prof Thomas Streinz discussed “Data access and digital equality for digital sovereignty”, Mr. Amadou Diop spoke on Africa’s digital infrastructure dependencies and what it means for digital sovereignty, Prof Olufunmilayo Arewa discussed technology, law and development highlighting the colonial biases in African narratives, and Prof Irene Lo explored how markets can be designed for social good.

Regional and Other Partners[edit | edit source]

The Virtual Research Sprint was hosted by the South African Research Chair on Industrial Development, University of Johannesburg, within the framework of the Ethics of Digitalisation project run by the the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, the Leibniz Institute for Media Research, Hans-Bredow-Institut, the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, and the Global Network of Internet and Society Research Centers (NoC), under the auspices of the Federal President of Germany and with funding from the Mercator Foundation.