Africa’s biggest mobile operator is struggling to protect its users’ digital rights

Abdi Latif Dahir

Information is the new currency we trade in today’s digital world. That’s why there’s increasing concern about who has control over our ability to get online, who can access our information, and how companies and governments should improve the right to privacy and freedom of expression.

A new study shows some of the world’s biggest communications companies are still lagging behind, inadequately informing users about how their data is collected, with whom it is shared, and why. The 2019 Ranking Digital Rights report shows, while there were some improvements from previous years, problems still persisted around securing user data, disclosures around policing online speech and how much authorities request to block content or to hand over user data.

The report surveyed 24 of the world’s biggest companies dealing in social networking services, video and photo sharing, prepaid and postpaid mobile, and search engines.

Among those companies, and the only one evaluated from Africa, was the South Africa-headquartered telco MTN Group. MTN operates in 22 markets in Africa and the Middle East with well over 220 million subscribers. Yet the accountability index noted it divulges very little in how it handles personal data and lacks strong governance mechanisms over human rights issues.

When it comes to privacy, the South African giant provided little information on what data it collects and how long it retains it or if it grants access to third-party members, and didn’t specify its strategy for handling data breaches. The company also didn’t release details about the privacy-related risks that could come with its targeted digital advertising services.

The report also said MTN didn’t publish “a clear commitment” to safeguard net neutrality, and “did not sufficiently disclose its policies for handling government network shutdown orders.”

The questions of demanding more transparency from African telcos is, however, an issue that goes beyond just MTN. In a continent where many nations either don’t have or enforce comprehensive data safety laws, there are legitimate concerns about how consumers should and could be protected. Africa has the lowest internet penetration rates globally, but improved digital infrastructure and rising smartphone uptake have made the internet a rapidly transformative tool—with telcos at the heart of this digital revolution.

The issue of strengthening digital rights often rises when African governments and activists clash over information censorship, surveillance, data retention, interception, and internet shutdowns. The current uproar over digital privacy has also been amplified by revelations that data mining company Cambridge Analytica and Israeli political consultancy Archimedes Group both targeted elections in countries including Kenya and Nigeria.

Watchdog group Privacy International has in the past claimed that Kenyan telecommunication companies allowed intelligence officers to access personal data that was then used to commit gross human rights violations. A study of Orange and Vodafone subsidiaries by the Paris-based advocacy Internet Sans Frontières showed they granted Africans fewer digital rights than their European subscribers.

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