This week was media freedom week in South Africa, and while we weren’t looking, a number of exciting discussions have been had on the state of digital media in our country. One in particular that stood out was a statement released by William Bird, executive director of Media Monitoring Africa, that heavily criticizes the availability of internet in South Africa.
On Wednesday, Bird testified before the Competition Commission’s Data Services Market Enquiry to echo a point previously brought up in our own blog (there’s no relation; I humbly accept this), that at this point in our society, a connection to the internet should be considered a basic human right; as it is in other parts of the world.
He gives a compelling argument for why this should be the case, insisting that a lack of internet access across the country is responsible for a widening of the gap between those who can afford a connection, and those who cannot. The absence of an available internet connection, he argues, results in a lack of opportunities for large sects of our society that is so perverse, that the divide can be likened to that created by the apartheid regime. A strong analogy to be sure, but not completely out of place.
In the contemporary, digital-driven world we live in, the web is used for scores of important activities like banking, dealing with home affairs, education, entering the job market and even conducting work (to name only a few); and by not prioritizing equal access for all, government is undermining their promise of economic and social equality in the country.
Why is This Call to Action any Different?
It’s not the first time the nature of data access in South Africa has been criticized, but this time there is a bit of a difference in that the message is coming from Media Monitoring Africa.
This non-profit organization is a strong media watch-dog, taking it upon themselves to maintain the principles of journalistic integrity and media equality in our nation.
They have been involved in a number of noteworthy discussions surrounding the media, and have even brought some of the biggest local publishers to task for unfair or dishonest journalistic practices.
They have been in the news, and have also helped shape it, countless times. Involved in all things media, they concern themselves with the fields of access and accountability, empowering individuals in the media, shaping the way the media affects elections and governance, representation, as well as defining media policies.
And so for a change, the call for a better internet infrastructure is not coming from a ranting citizen such as myself, but rather an organization with the will and power to actually do something about it.
In their submission to the Competition Commission’s Data Services Market Inquiry, the MMA outlined the need for a clear and coherent digital policy that should meet the following objectives:
- A multi-sector, multi-stakeholder approach to bridging the digital divide within our country;
- This must be done with public interest as a priority;
- It must be in line with the African Declaration on Internet Rights;
- It must work for both the rich and the poor;
- They must be included as rights in our constitution.
The MMA’s full submission to the Data Services Market Inquiry can be downloaded here.
The Argument for Data Costs
One of the major points argued in the MMA submission concerns the consumer cost of data, specifically pointing to the divide between the cost for those who can afford it, and those who cannot.
Those who are well off, the submission argues, are able to obtain data plans, or can buy in bulk to obtain access at a lesser cost. In the meantime, those from low-income backgrounds (which make up a large portion of South African society) are unable to afford packages that enable these savings.
The costing model, the submission states, works on a classic capitalist principle of higher quantities at a lower cost per unit, an approach that the MMA insists works on perverse logic; undermines the principles of media integrity; and facilitates a wider gap between sects of society.
They further outline the problem of high tariffs for data, comparing our average cost of R149 per gigabyte, to India’s R11 per gig, and Russia’s R24 per gig; concluding that South Africa has some of the most expensive data rates in the world.
A 7-Step Road Map for Universal Access to Information
The MMA perceives the limited access to information to be the core concern for an approach to lowering data tariffs, and suggest the following approaches to rectifying the issue:
1. Free Public Access at Government Sites
Infrastructure for free public internet access needs to be made available at all government institutions and sites. These may include such locations as schools, libraries and health institutions.
2. Zero-Rated Access to Government Websites
This point suggests that access to government sites should be available for free, to everybody.
3. Free Wi-Fi Access as a Basic Municipal Service (and as a Commercial Obligation)
This suggests that internet access should run as a public utility. Furthermore, the suggestion places the onus on commercial operators to provide free Wi-Fi in poor areas if they would like the right to operate in affluent ones.
4. Minimum Standards for Providing Free Internet Access
This point outlines suggestions for setting minimum standards of service provision, both for free by the public, and for paid-for commercial operators. This includes a minimum data allocation per person per day, and also suggests a series of standards to be met for the protection of privacy, security, access quality and the availability of any information considered to be in the interest of the public.
5. Free Daily Allowance
The MMA has forged a concept called My i-Right, which if implemented, will allow for the free provision of a minimum amount of free data to each person, per day, so that they can exercise their right to access of information.
6. Educational Digital Literacy Programs
Enabling the availability of data and infrastructure is not enough, the submission suggests programs to educate those who currently have no access to internet, or are unaware of the risks and opportunities afforded by it, to improve their basic digital literacy skills.
7. Governing Bodies
The MMA also calls for the implementation of a governing body to oversee, monitor and report on the realization of internet access rights. In addition, they would legislate, regulate and govern the policies of free access to the internet.
Without equal access to the internet, there is a strong chance that South Africa will be left in the wake of the rest of the developing world. The digital era is upon us, and as we move forward through it, access to the internet is becoming a crucial requirement for taking advantage of opportunities, or even just living a vaguely normal life. It affects all spheres of life from social and educational, to economic and private.
We here at Right Click Media are excited by this proposition, and optimistically look forward to watching the fruit of MMA’s continual labors unfold.
To find out more about our digital agency and what we do, contact a representative from our company, or visit our website today.