Last night’s dramatic release of compelling evidence by anonymous internet hackers that Baba Jukwa, a notorious online character that claimed to be a high ranking official in President Mugabe’s inner circle, is actually the work of two young journalists struggling to earn a living in South Africa certainly makes for amusing reading. However, some serious issues arise.
A few weeks ago Turkey’s increasingly autocratic leader banned Twitter and Youtube after content his government found objectionable was loaded onto the services. The Chinese have imposed a firewall that allows authorities to quickly snuff out undesirables from the national network. The United Kingdom has now established in law that websites infringing copyright should be blocked by internet service providers.
While such interventions make many uncomfortable, fearing unwarranted intrusions by the authorities, there is a case for greater Government oversight in online communications, especially in Africa. The authorities in the Western world can quickly force large internet companies to remove offending material but African governments find themselves powerless to influence companies that are making a lot of money by operating in African cyberspace. At the height of Baba Jukwa’s celebrity it is said that he received the backing of Facebook which believed, incorrectly as it turns out, that he was a bona-fide mole that would spark a revolution.
The African Union needs to use its clout to push for international law that forces large internet companies to render the same cooperation it offers to Western law enforcement to the authorities in Africa. Baba Jukwa made some very damaging allegations which it now turns out were nothing more than mischief. Some were accused of being murderers while other senior officials were threatened with the kidnapping of their kids.
Apart from imposing an unreasonable ban on the entire service, the authorities were powerless to act since the offending content was hosted outside the country. While there is growing speculation the intelligence services may be behind these revelations this is unsatisfactory. There should be a clear legal framework that allows the police to demand for offending content to be removed from social networks in partnership with these internet companies as well as the provision of IP addresses and other information that can aid law enforcement in apprehending suspects.
Western ambassadors must make a strong case to their governments for introducing such cooperation if they want to promote the free flow of information. If the authorities are unable to partner with foreign internet companies they will be forced to impose indiscriminate bans as unfortunately happened in Turkey recently.
While the Baba Jukwa campaign was chaotic and largely ineffectual, there is the very real danger that sophisticated malicious actors could make good use of the anonymity provided by the internet. A well balanced policy is in urgent need.
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