Compelled Service Provider Assistance for State Surveillance in Africa: Challenges and Policy Options

Compelled Service Provider Assistance for State Surveillance in Africa: Challenges and Policy Options

By CIPESA Writer |

In many Sub-Saharan countries, state surveillance, which generally refers to state measures to monitor and supervise activities of the population, has become more pervasive and reliant on various digital technologies. The increasing communication surveillance, which entails the monitoring, interception, collection and retention of information through communication networks, undermines digital technology users’ rights, including to privacy, and often places intermediaries in a position where they fail to comply with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).

The right to privacy online is critical due to its intricate connection with, and its being a foundation for the protection and realisation of other rights, including the rights to freedoms of expression, information, assembly, and association. Anonymity while using digital technologies helps mitigate risks of surveillance and interception of private communication as well as retaliation by the state or other parties. The fear of retaliation often forces individuals to withdraw from active participation in political and community affairs.

Also concerning are the strenuous and sometimes unclear demands by states on intermediaries, including to facilitate interception of communication, hand over communication data of their subscribers to state security agencies, and to take down content or shut down the internet. Others have adopted repressive legislation to control the spread of information on social media and to wantonly regulate internet intermediaries by placing undue liability on them for the content posted on their platforms.

This policy brief examines how mandatory obligations on telecommunication intermediaries to facilitate state surveillance undermines their ability to comply with international standards including the UNGPs, and hamper users’ rights. It draws on experiences from around Sub-Saharan Africa to illustrate how service providers are compelled through retrogressive policies and practices, to comply with state surveillance instructions.

This brief provides recommendations for governments, social media platforms, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and civil society aimed at entrenching progressive principles in the implementation of lawful interception, empowering civil society actors to engage with technology companies to improve their human rights policies and practices, and informing efforts by businesses in awareness raising and advocacy for progressive technology governance.

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