The size of Africa’s digital economy is estimated at US$115 billion and it is expected to reach US$712 billion by 2050 (Endeavour 2022). In Africa, digital is the new oil, and Africa is poised to extract opportunities from it to enhance economic growth and well-being on the continent. However, Africa’s digital economy is confronted by disparate regulatory frameworks, including a clash of domestic and regional digital regulatory regimes.
The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) of 2018 includes a protocol on digital trade with which the continent seeks to harmonize domestic and regional digital regulatory regimes. The success of this continent-wide approach to digitization will largely be determined by the willingness of individual African countries to accept the supremacy of an Africa-wide regulatory regime. This article highlights the challenges of disparate digital regulatory regimes in Africa and why it is easy for Big Tech corporations to exploit this diversity. The continent’s Digital Single Market (DSM) is critical to the rejuvenation of Africa’s digital economy.
Big Tech and digital colonialism
On 14 September 2022, Google lost an appeal against a European Union (EU) antitrust ruling of 2018. The judgment of the European Court of Justice suggests that Google will be forced to pay more than US$4 billion for anti-competitive behaviour (Reid 2022). It is the fourth time in five years that the EU has fined Google for abusing the dominance of its Android mobile operating system. Previous fines amounted to US$2.8 billion in 2017, US$5 billion in 2018, and US$1.7 billion in 2019 (Reid 2022).
While the EU ruling has received wide applause for stemming anti-competitive behaviour by Big Tech in the Global North, it raises major concern about contrasting situations in the Global South. While Big Tech corporations conform to local laws and pay taxes in the Global North, they neither respect local laws nor pay significant taxes in countries of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Actions of Twitter in Nigeria illustrate this authoritarian behaviour of Big Tech in Africa. In June 2021, the Nigerian government banned Twitter from operating in the country. The ban was instigated by Twitter’s deletion of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet cautioning against a repeat of the 1967 Biafran civil war pogrom against the Igbo (Akinwotu 2021). Twitter claimed that the post violated its rules, but the Nigerian government perceived Twitter to choose sides with the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), a self-determination group that champions the independence of the Igbo in southeastern Nigeria. After seven months of negotiations, the Nigerian government lifted the ban in January 2022 and announced that Twitter had agreed to pay applicable taxes and to establish a legal entity in the country. Kashifu Inuwa Abdullahi, Director-General of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), disclosed that Twitter will also appoint a ‘designated country representative to interface with Nigerian authorities’ by 2023. Abdullahi declared that ‘Twitter has agreed to act with a respectful acknowledgement of Nigerian laws and the national culture and history […] in line with global best practices, applicable in almost all developed countries’ (Radio Nigeria 2022). Yet eight months later, there are no indications that Twitter will abide by these terms.
Another scenario in Kenya similarly illustrates the authoritarian behaviour of Big Tech corporations in Africa. Daniel Motaung, a former content moderator for Sama, Facebook’s main outsourcing contractor in East Africa, Nairobi, Kenya is suing the company for paying far less than elsewhere for the same work, as well as engaging in forced labour, human trafficking and union busting. However, lawyers for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, have argued that the Kenyan court has no jurisdiction, because Facebook is not locally domiciled in Kenya and therefore cannot be held accountable to local laws.
The authoritarian operations of Big Tech corporations in sub-Saharan Africa have been described as akin to digital colonialism: ‘a digital transposition of the crude colonialism that ravaged and ruined most of Africa’. Kwet (2019: 5) explains that digital colonialism manifests through the centralized ownership and control of the three core pillars of the digital ecosystem: software, hardware and network connectivity. However, digital colonialism does not tell the entire story of Big Tech corporations in Africa. As classical colonialism thrived through collaboration with local actors in the continent, digital colonialism thrives through disparate regulatory regimes in the African continent.
A digital single market for Africa?
While one can blame Big Tech corporations for exporting digital colonialism to Africa, African governments also play a role. The 54 countries on the African continent are members of the African Union (AU), and AU laws are supposed to have primacy over the national laws of member states. Yet the AU is a loosely held organization, whose laws and policies are not binding on individual African countries. The same holds for other regional and sub-regional multilateral organs on the African continent (Tieku 2019). For instance, laws of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are loosely respected by the members because most countries give primacy to national laws. Even when the AU decides to launch continent-wide frameworks, individual countries often violate the measures.
This fragmentation at the national level is the major weakness in Africa’s quest to regulate Big Tech corporations. The situation is different for the EU, US, and China, where centralized regulatory regimes hold firm. The AU’s regulatory regime is not centralized, and hence it is easy for Big Tech corporations to exploit the situation by engaging with policy and political actors in individual African countries. This weakness also manifests in the form of a weak framework for the monitoring and implementation of the continent’s digital transformation strategy.
In an effort to improve the digital power balance for Africa, the AU recently launched a much-anticipated digital single market (DSM) which aims to harmonize the continent’s regulatory frameworks for the sector. The objectives of the DSM include:
- To secure by 2030 a DSM in Africa, where free movement of persons, services and capital is ensured and individuals and businesses can seamlessly access and engage in online activities in line with the AfCFTA.
- To harmonize policies, legislation and regulations on digital economy and to establish and improve digital networks and services with a view to strengthening intra-Africa trade, intra-investment and capital flows and the socio-economic integration of the continent, while maintaining a relational balance with other continents in the context of networked economies.
- To implement laws, policies and regulations that stimulate and accelerate digital transformation for national, regional and continental development.
- To achieve coherence among digital policies and strategies at regional and national levels and to mobilize effective cooperation between relevant national and regional institutions.
- To enter into force by 2020 the AU Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection and for all Members States to adopt a complete set of legislation covering eTransactions, Personal Data Protection and Privacy, Cybercrime and Consumer Protection.
The major obstacle to achieving the laudable objectives of the DSM is its implementation in individual African countries. For example, to date merely eight of the 54 member states of the AU have ratified the Malabo Convention on Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection. Meanwhile, the AfCFTA has so far obtained ratification from 44 of the 54 countries. Moreover, despite the wide celebration of the AfCFTA as providing a channel for inter-African trade and travel, visa restrictions remain the norm.
Conclusion: Tech regulation in Africa
Will the regulation of Big Tech corporations in Africa ever succeed? Yes and no! Larger African states such as Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa may manage to muscle Big Tech corporations to pay taxes and respect local laws; however, other states will not and indeed are not likely even to try. The overarching problem is the continent’s disparate regulatory regimes, which promote national laws over continent-wide laws. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely for the time being that the AU will gain traction to be able enforce regional legal and regulatory measures in individual African countries. Hence, the current unhappy status quo will persist.
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Endeavor (2022). ‘The Inflection Point: Africa’s Digital Economy is Poised to Take Off’, Endeavor, 9 June, available at: https://endeavor.org/knowledge-center-events/thought-leadership/the-inflection-point-africas-digital-economy-is-poised-to-take-off/ (accessed 18 October 2022).
Guardia Nigeria (2022). ‘Twitter to Pay Tax, Establish “Legal Entity’ in Nigeria After Suspension is Lifted’, The Guardian, 12 January, available at: https://guardian.ng/news/twitter-to-pay-tax-establish-legal-entity-in-nigeria-after-suspension/ (accessed 18 October 2022).
Kwet, Michael (2019). ‘Digital Colonialism: US Empire and the New Imperialism in the Global South’, Race & Class 60(4): 3–26.
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Royal, David (2021). ‘Many Misbehaving Today Not Aware of Loss of Lives During Civil War, We’ll Treat Them in Language They Understand ― Buhari’, Vanguard, 1 June, available at: https://www.vanguardngr.com/2021/06/many-misbehaving-today-not-aware-of-loss-of-lives-during-civil-war/ (accessed 18 October 2022).
Sambuli, Nanjira (2022). ‘Facebook Lawsuit in Kenya Could Affect Big Tech Accountability Across Africa’, Open Democracy, 12 August, available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/5050/facebook-meta-sama-daniel-motaung-court-kenya/ (accessed 18 October 2022).
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About the Author
Dr Emeka Umejei is a media scholar, whose research focuses on Chinese media and Chinese digital infrastructure in Africa. He has taught in several African countries at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, the American University of Nigeria, and the University of Ghana. He also held research positions in universities in Germany at the University of Duisburg-Essen and the University of Tubingen. His authored book Chinese Media in Africa: Perception, Performance, and Paradox (2020) received wide acclaim.
Dr. Umejei served as an investigative journalist for several years, writing for leading newspapers in Nigeria, including the Independent and Leadership. He also served as an African correspondent for US-based media outfit LNG Publications, based out of Johannesburg, South Africa.
Dr. Umejei is a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC. Dr. Umejei current research focuses on the impact of the Belt and Road News Network as a vehicle for the influence operation of the Chinese party-state over African media development. He holds a master's degree in Journalism and Media Studies from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, and a PhD in the same discipline from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.