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What are the hallmarks of a modern, vibrant democracy? Free and fair elections, of course, but what about internet access?
Bad actors have long used the internet to silence critics and spread disinformation, according to the Open Internet for Democracy Initiative, but they don’t have to shape all online conversations, so the group is working to make sure everyone has access to a free and open internet.
Next week, they’ll head to Berlin for the UN-sponsored Internet Governance Forum (IGF). But this won’t be all aging bureaucrats in headphones listening to interpreters. Young people from around the world will be there to plot the future of our online world and digital culture, including Kuda Hove, Legal and Digital Policy Lead at the Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zimbabwe (MISA).
Hove is one of six fellows in the Open Internet for Democracy Leaders Program, an eight-month initiative intended to help future leaders learn how to protect internet freedoms across the globe. We spoke to Hove recently about that, as well as the state of internet access in Zimbabwe. Here are edited and condensed excerpts of our conversation.
Before we get onto the Open Internet for Democracy Leaders Program, let’s talk about the major threat to this issue that happened in your country, Zimbabwe, in January 2019—the six-day shutdown of the internet. You participated in the successful legal challenge against it. What was it like living through it?
[KH] It was frustrating because state-controlled television and radio media all pretended there was no internet shutdown, while the news covered other mundane things instead. It was the first time in my life that I’d been without access to the internet for a prolonged period. It was a disconcerting experience that left me feeling isolated and out of touch, especially with my immediate family who are all located elsewhere. Like most Zimbabweans, I rely heavily on WhatsApp to keep in touch with everyone else, as my window to the world.
Did you still have telephone access?
Yes, fortunately, SMSes and voice calls were going through on all national networks, and we all used those means to stay in touch for the six days.
Did people use VPNs to connect another way?
Yes, it should be stated, though, that the internet was completely shut down for about three of the six days—the rest of the time it was access to popular instant messaging and social media apps and websites that was blocked, but this block could be circumvented through the use of a VPN.
Tell us about mounting an official campaign against it.
The court challenge would not have been possible without the support of our partner Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. A court challenge only became possible a few days into the internet shutdown when government sent out a notification that the shutdown was [being carried out via] the Interception of Communications Act. This opened up the door to a legal challenge based on the illegitimate use of this law and that was the basis of the joint court challenge.
Which is how the government was defeated on this issue eventually?
The court reached its decision on the technicality that the internet shutdown was ordered by a government official who did not have the power to give such an order in terms of the act. In our view, this was a compromise that the court made to restore internet connectivity in that specific instance but also leaving the door open for the president to order an internet shutdown sometime in the future.
The court did not comment on our submission that the Interception of Communications Act does not cater for the disruption of communications. The court also avoided dealing with our submission that internet shutdowns amount to a violation of fundamental rights. Nonetheless, the ruling to restore internet connectivity to the country was a welcome victory that validated MISA Zimbabwe’s work in the fight for the recognition of online rights in Zimbabwe.
Please bust some myths about your country and digital life. For those who might not know much more than the end of the white minority rule in 1980, Robert Mugabe’s presidency, and the 2017 coup.
The first myth I want to bust is that Zimbabwe is backward in terms of the use of internet-based technologies. The local telecommunications regulator estimates that about 57 percent of Zimbabwe’s population now has access to the internet, and there is a rise in the use of apps such as Twitter, Snapchat, and dating apps such as Tinder.
So, in a way, a similar usage pattern to the US.
Right. Because the drop in costs of entry-level smartphones means that a significant part of the youth population in Zimbabwe has access to the internet. The other myth that Zimbabweans are busting is that the internet is always used for human development and economic-related activities. Some Zimbabwean youths are using the internet for its entertainment value and not necessarily because they want to make money or learn. This is evidenced by an increase in users of streaming services such as Netflix and Showmax.
Tell us about the Open Internet for Democracy Leaders Program and why you wanted to participate.
I felt it was in line with my work to date in internet governance—most specifically the promotion of the enjoyment of fundamental rights in online environments. The other reason that made me apply was because I have always admired the work of the organizations that support the program, including the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), and the Center for International Private Enterprise. I have worked on projects in the past funded by NED, and my values are closely aligned with CIMA and the work it does.
You studied law at the University of South Africa as an undergrad, and are now heading towards completing your Masters in Law in 2020. How did you get into the digital legislation space?
My intent was to join a mixed boutique law firm, but in my final year of study I took an elective module—”Selected principles and criminal law principles of the Internet”—which sparked my love for internet-related law. Then, in mid-2014, I had the opportunity to attend a summer course at the Venice Academy of Human Rights on the “Protection of the Right to Privacy and Freedom of Expression Online,” which became the basis of my passion for policy work and I’ve not turned back since. I believe that I can influence the shaping of internet policy more as part of civil society, rather than within the structures of a law firm.
What’s your ultimate career goal?
My career goal keeps changing as I learn more about this space, which is itself dynamic and ever evolving. For now, it’s to demystify the regulation of information technologies, [and] working to show state officials and representatives that regulating the internet can actually harm human development by restricting the enjoyment of fundamental rights in online environments. As well as ensuring the “ordinary person” understands what regulation of technologies is all about, and how that affects the quality of their day-to-day life.
For now, what are the main issues you are working on now in Zimbabwe?
At the Media Institute of Southern Africa Zimbabwe, we’re pushing for the reform of media laws and the meaningful repeal of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, as well as the introduction of human rights-based Cybercrime and Computer crime laws.
Data protection and privacy laws are close to my heart, and I will keep working on projects that seek to promote the enjoyment of the right to privacy. At a regional level, my focus is to assist MISA chapters in Zambia, Tanzania, Malawi, and possibly Mozambique develop and implement robust digital rights campaigns. These campaigns are meant to raise public awareness about the existence of online rights and how the exercise of these rights contributes to overall human development.