Op-Ed: Africa has made a Faustian bargain with Facebook

By Jacqueline Musiitwa, Esq is a regulatory attorney and the Executive Director of Financial Sector Deepening Uganda. 

Data is the new oil in more ways than one. Personal information is the new hot commodity sought by corporations and national governments, and the companies that own that data are shifting geopolitical and commercial realities. In February, the tech community was shaken by revelations that the Russian government had used Facebook to sway American public opinion during last year’s presidential elections. Consumers and regulators alike are growing wary of how companies manage their data, and the #DeleteFacebook movement continues to gain momentum in the United States and beyond. However, it is consumers in Africa that bear the greatest risks from social media-enabled invasions of privacy. According to London-based rights group Article 19, more than half of Africa’s 54 countries have no data protection or privacy laws and, of the 14 countries that do, nine have no regulators to enforce them. In the race for connectivity, African consumers and governments are unwittingly making a Faustian bargain. As Africa becomes the world’s fastest growing, digital-first market, its consumers urgently need protection.

From balloons and drones to satellites, operators such as Facebook and Google have been recognised for their commitment to providing Internet access to some of Africa’s most remote regions. But access to the Internet must be coupled with training on digital literacy to adequately protect new users against invasions of privacy and online abuse. Facebook’s website openly declares that it collects user information such as the type of device being used and the mobile operator, and stipulates that “we may also share such usage information with the providers of third-party services”. Access is therefore gained on the assumption of users’ digital illiteracy and understanding of consent. In reality, this is often not the case: social media subscribers, particularly women and youth, are particularly at risk. World Wide Web Foundation research finds that a culture of competition to have high Facebook followings can lead users to share their personal profiles with strangers. Only when individuals become more experienced Facebook users do they realize the risks to privacy and become more selective in their friend choices. Since tech companies are profiting from consumer data, it is their responsibility to understand how the use of such data can benefit and harm users, particularly those with low literacy levels and where English is often a third language. Tech companies must roll out training on appropriate online behaviour, data and privacy protection, and online abuse.

Social media in Africa isn’t only used for targeted advertising—companies like Tala and Branch are developing algorithms to analyse broad social connections, including friends, friends of friends and beyond, to build a measure of creditworthiness. Where social media is being used as a tool for financial inclusion, companies must tread carefully. There is disjuncture between our online and offline selves, which means that the data these services collect can be misleading. Users must be sensitized to the impact of borrowing, and how and why they might receive negative scores. There are other metrics that perhaps deserve more weight when creating credit ratings. FICO’s Expansion Score, now launched in a number of emerging markets including Russia, Mexico and South Africa, considers a variety of non-traditional data sources including utility bills and property records, to develop a score. Experian, a UK credit score firm, has introduced rent payment data to its scoring process. Its Rental Exchange acts as a secure database that houses rental payment information, enabling those with no credit history to establish a credit score based on their rental payments.  Considering those who lived in informal settlements and rural areas without addresses or access to utilities, solar energy companies such as M-Kopa in East Africa utilize customers’ mobile money payment history to develop a score.

Between the Internet and social media, it seems that privacy is dead. In today’s environment, one’s property is more than a home or earthly possessions; the Internet provides thieves with a new source of information and wealth. But privacy is the foundation of a free society and our basic right to privacy must be protected. With high profile scandals involving US Elections, Russia, Brexit and more, little time has been taken to understand how violations of Internet privacy are affecting the most vulnerable social media users. Even before recent controversy in America, Cambridge Analytica experimented across Africa by enticing politicians to provide government-held data and manipulating psychological traits to affect voter behaviour. While these machinations may not have garnered a hashtag, African countries must regulate social media networks and Internet companies in order to ensure customers are protected. Policymakers alike should follow the lead of the European Union, which recently implemented the General Data Protection Regulation, and reinforce principles of consent and transparency. Advanced economies don’t have the monopoly on progressive regulation on data privacy—Turkey, one of the world’s leading emerging markets, recently instituted the Law on the Protection of Personal Data. If African leaders hope to benefit from this digital age, firewalls must accompany fiber optic cables.

The lack of data and privacy laws leaves many Africans, a large percentage of whom are accessing the Internet for the first time, with little to no protection. Personal data can be used to influence decisions, shape behaviour and exercise control, in the wrong hands, it can be used to cause great harm. Personal privacy is essential to ensuring survival in today’s world – both offline and online. Data scandals cannot be the latest way corporations exploit African countries; Internet security and privacy must be ubiquitous and understood by all.

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