The IAB SA, South Africa’s internet industry body, is spearheading an initiative aimed at eventually ensuring that all South Africans have a daily standard level of free basic access to the internet to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed access to information rights.

The vision of the initiative is for all citizens to have the means, capacity and skills to fully participate in a digitally driven democracy and economy.

To achieve this, the IAB SA proposes a national effort to coordinate existing legislation, policies and initiatives to provide citizens with a basic level of universal free internet access, in line with:

  • The United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which seek to “significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the internet in least developed countries by 2020”; read together with the South African 2030 vision in the National Development Plan (NDP) of universal access to the internet and an e-literate public.
  • The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights’ 2016 resolution on the right to freedom of information and expression on the internet in Africa, which calls on African governments to take legislative and other measures “to guarantee, respect and protect citizen’s right to freedom of information and expression through access to internet services”.
  • The Electronic Communications Act and policies issued in terms of the act, in particular South Africa Connect, the 2013 national broadband strategy and plan to give expression to the vision in the NDP for a seamless information infrastructure by 2030, including the provision of free public Wi-Fi at all public points reached by the public sector networks. As noted in the SA Connect policy:

    – “This will stimulate demand by allowing people to access the internet, including government services.  Mechanisms will be explored to support and encourage municipalities to establish municipal-wide free [Wi-Fi] networks aimed at enabling access and innovation”.

    – The policy further states: “[T]his policy gives effect of the Constitution of South Africa by creating the conditions in a modern electronic world ‘to improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person’ and, in doing so, enables equality in the rights, privileges and benefits of citizenship, including the guarantees of freedom of expression and association in the Bill of Rights.  This aligns with the declaration by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations General Assembly that access to the internet is a basic human right which enables individuals to ‘exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression’.

  • The 2016 National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper which emphasises the interplay between access to the internet (facilitated by universal access funds) and the constitutional right to equality:

    – “Equality and the right of everyone to “full enjoyment” of all opportunities in South Africa underpin all rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution.  This founding law further compels Government to proactively intervene to address any inequality.  In line with this constitutional injunction, this White Paper introduces a range of interventions to ensure that everyone in South Africa, regardless of who they are, where they live or their socio-economic status can improve the quality of their lives through accessing the benefits of participating in the digital society.

  • The aims of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act to provide for the development of a national e-strategy and to promote universal access to electronic communications and transaction strategies, including programmes to provide internet connectivity to disadvantaged communities and to encourage the private sector to initiate schemes to provide universal access.

Chris Borain, chair of the IAB SA, says that while Icasa is dealing with the cost of data, the separate but fundamental issue of a basic level of free access to the internet for all citizens should get urgent and equal attention.   “All South Africans – and especially those who cannot afford it and other vulnerable groups – need a daily first tranche of free internet access to exercise their basic human rights such as access to government services, looking for jobs, online communication and for learners and students to access online educational resources.  This is the only way to achieve universal access to information and digital equality amongst our citizens, including the rural poor who have access to mobile phones.”

The IAB SA, the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) and Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) have joined forces with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and Applied Law and Technology (altadvisory.africa) to publish a research paper on the topic Perspectives on Universal Access to Online Information in South Africa: Free Public Wi-Fi and Zero-Rated Content, which is publically available.

One of the authors, Avani Singh from Applied Law and Technology, says the paper examined the legal framework that support the progressive realisation of the right to universal free access to online information, with a specific focus on the South African context, drawing on input from a wide range of industry and civil society experts.

“Through its domestic and international commitments, South Africa has undertaken to take steps towards achieving universal access to online information. In this existing socio-economic climate, these commitments cannot be achieved without providing for a level of free access, in particular for disadvantaged and marginalised groups who would otherwise not be able to enjoy access. The paper argues that in order to fulfil these commitments, the government must take reasonable steps towards progressively realising universal access to online information, both within the government itself and through engagements with private entities and other stakeholders.”

The paper was launched last year on the International Day for Universal Access to Information at the Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) conference in Johannesburg.  In her address to the Forum, the then outgoing chair of the ACHPR and Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa and current South African Information Regulator, Adv Pansy Tlakula acknowledged the issues raised in the paper and commended the efforts of civil society, media and industry role-players in South Africa to accelerate the realisation of the ACHPR’s call on African governments to guarantee, respect and protect citizen’s right to freedom of information and expression through access to internet services.

Following on this, at its December 2017 National Conference at Nasrec, the ANC resolved to “encourage efforts by Government and the private sector to deploy broadband infrastructure and services and also ensure accessibility of free wi-fi as part of the development of economic inclusion.  Free wi-fi must also be provided in rural areas as well as metros and in all public schools, clinics, libraries, etc.”

Sanef chair Mahlatse Mahlase says she hopes that the new Digital Industrial Revolution Commission announced by Pres Cyril Ramaphosa in his maiden State of the Nation Address in February will put the issue of free internet access high on its agenda.  “Access to information is a fundamental human right and access to the internet is fundamental to exercise those rights.  Government already made commitments as part of the global Open Government Partnership to set up open data portals and e-government services.  The logical next step will be to provide universal access by zero-rating government information on the internet.”

William Bird from MMA says formal engagement with public institutions in South Africa, including the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and the Information Regulator (IR), should explore implementable mechanisms and minimum norms and standards for accelerating free access to public information through a rights-respecting deployment of public access networks as well as free and zero-rated internet services – and with all of this underpinned by a digital literacy programme implemented via national school curricula. “It is essential not only for all people to have access to the internet, but that all people can acquire the skills for not just digital literacy, but for digital citizenship – without it we will be undermining our future digital democracy.“

To this end, earlier this year an online industry and media delegation led by the IAB SA met with the SAHRC to discuss ways in which a basic level of free internet access for all citizens can be achieved over time, based on existing government policies and the argument that universal access to the internet is a pre-requisite and enabler for access to information – the monitoring of which is part of the constitutional Chapter 9 mandate of the SAHRC.

The delegation proposed a seven point action plan to roll out free internet rights in South Africa:

  1. The implementation of free access to the internet at government sites such as schools, libraries, health facilities, etc. This is already government policy, but there should be a commitment to a fixed roll-out schedule, and the service should be promoted and monitored with adequate oversight by appropriate bodies.
  1. Zero-rated access to government websites and data, as envisaged in the e-government policies.
  1. Following on several pilot projects in a number of cities and towns, free wi-fi access should forthwith be regarded as a basic municipal service and run as a public utility (alongside water, electricity and other municipal services), and government should set up plans and targets for the progressive realisation of such services. This could be done via public/private partnerships, such as making it a requirement for commercial operators like telecoms and fibre companies to provide free wi-fi in poor areas for the right to provide commercial services in business and affluent areas.
  1. Setting minimum standards for the provision of free internet access, including for all commercial offerings: a minimum data allocation per person per day; and standards for privacy, security, access quality and fair access to information in the public interest.
  1. The introduction of the concept of My Internet Rights (or My i-Right): that every citizen should be entitled to a daily tranche of free internet access (eg 500MB per day, which is already the standard for many free wi-fi schemes), to exercise their access to information rights.
  1. The introduction of digital literacy programmes in education curricula and as part of free internet schemes, especially aimed at children and those unfamiliar with risks and opportunities related to the internet.
  1. The need for the SAHRC and other oversight bodies to monitor and report on the progressive realisation of internet access rights, and in particular the adoption and implementation of legislation, regulation and policies governing free access to the internet as a basic human right.

In response, the COO of the SAHRC, Chantal Kissoon indicated that the commission will consider incorporating monitoring of government’s internet access plans for inclusion in national, regional and international reports on human rights issues; look into the possibility of convening a conference of experts and stakeholders to explore aspects of the proposed action plan; and to raise the issue of free internet access in outreach and stakeholder engagements.

Anriette Esterhuysen, the APC’s director of global policy and strategy, says that with South Africa’s internet policies, ICT infrastructure, community networks and free internet pilot projects already underway, the country is well placed to become an example of how the developing world can bridge the digital divide, including the gender digital divide.  “What is necessary now is for the public sector, business and civil society to take practical steps towards the goal to give every South African a basic level of free access to the internet.”

  • Izak Minnaar is Editor: SABC Digital News and serves on the IAB SA Publishers’ Council and on the Sanef council, focusing on access to information and online regulation.