17 May 2011

Internet Freedom in South Africa

17 May 2011 marks World Information Day, a day set aside by the United Nations General Assembly to raise global awareness of societal changes brought about by the Internet and new technologies. In South Africa, due to a low level of internet access, the vital nature of this tool is still under-appreciated.

In 2009 the French Constitutional Court, in decision no. 2009-580 of June 10th 2009, recognised internet access as a human right, of which a citizen may only be deprived by a court ruling. While South Africa and comparative jurisdictions do not yet recognise internet access as a human right, a changing global world is creating the need for South Africa and our African neighbours to consider the importance of internet access and its relation to human rights. It is perhaps a lack of appreciation of this role that resulted in Egypt's internationally disparaged decision to cut off internet access to its people during protests in early 2011.

Internet usage is considered to be protected by the right of freedom of expression, which in South Africa includes the right to receive and impart ideas. However, it also has a facilitative role to play. The South African government's e-governance policy is an express acknowledgment of how the internet could be used by our government to enhance service delivery - a blatant necessity in a society ravaged by service delivery protests.

South Africa's internet freedom was rated highly in a study released by Freedom House this month. However, despite the relative freedom, internet access is a reality for only 9% (approximately) of the population, with high establishment and user costs and predominantly English content proving prohibitive.

While the South African government must be commended for its continuing improvements in internet freedom, we should remain cognisant of the particular responsibility held by our government in pushing forward the internet agenda in Africa. In the Southern African region, South Africa maintains the greatest level of internet penetration. South Africa must therefore play a leadership role, accepting responsibility to push for forward-thinking policy in relation to the internet.