Reflections on Big Tech’s effect on Africa

Bulanda Tapiwa Nkhowani

This Africa Day, our new Campaigns and Partnerships Manager, Sub-Saharan Africa, Bulanda Tapiwa Nkhowani, shares her thoughts on how Africa has been affected by digital threats, and how it’s fighting back.

Every May 25th, countries in Africa celebrate Africa Day (formerly Africa Freedom Day) to commemorate the establishment of the unifying regional body the Organisation of African Unity (now known as the African Union) in 1963. The essence of this day is to celebrate the African continent and promote unity and collaboration among member states and encourage economic and socio-political cooperation with the goal to ensure that people in Africa lead-free and prosperous lives.

While many strides have been made to ensure that African States are free and to improve the socio-political and economic prospects of many Africans, including the science and technology sector, only about 40% of Africa’s population is connected to the internet amid a growing digital divide. As we celebrate Africa Day, a question that still persists is, is Africa’s digital ecosystem truly free of digital harms and digital colonialism?

We have seen how disinformation and hate speech have led to real-life harm during the 2022 Kenyan election and the Ethiopia Tigray crisis, respectively. We have also witnessed censorship and infringements on privacy and algorithmic bias that have affected African digital users. In 2022, seven countries in Africa experienced an internet shutdown including Ethiopia which continues to experience a prolonged shutdown in the Tigray region.

Besides these harms, momentum is growing to hold big tech accountable in the global South including a big shift in the African tech accountability ecosystem. One case in point is that of whistle-blower Daniel Motaung, a former third-party Facebook content moderator who filed a lawsuit against Meta in May 2022 over claims of exploitation and unfair labour practices. If upheld, this case could set an important precedence for how Meta and other big tech companies should invest in better labour practices in Africa’s gig economy and how they can be held accountable by local actors to make equitable changes to their policies to assess and mitigate the many harms that their platforms pose to users, regardless of their geography.

On this Africa Day, I am reminded of why organisations like Digital Action exist; to protect human rights and people from digital threats, challenge the unfair practices of big tech and catalyse movements in Africa and beyond that will protect people across the world from digital harms. Check out our Twitter thread for more examples of African activism holding Big Tech accountable.

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