Holding technology companies accountable for human rights violations in Africa
Technology companies are increasingly finding foot in Africa, both as a source of critical raw materials as well as a market destination – the latter fueled by the rising young population. This has seen an increase in social media use, surveillance technology, the rise in e-commerce and the increasing reliance on digital platforms to access essential services, including public services such as healthcare.
Whereas these developments are welcome, irresponsible use of digital technologies has the potential to cause harm to individuals and communities. Civil society organisations have recorded a concerning number of internet shutdowns during elections and periods of political instability. Workers in the gig economy sectors have often complained of lack of adequate respect of their labour rights by the companies and inadequate protection by regulatory agencies. Activists continue to be subjected to surveillance, limiting their freedom of expression and association. There have also been allegations that failure by a social media company to control misinformation has put lives of ethnic minorities at risk.
Technology companies have begun attempting to redress these gaps. For instance, several telecommunications companies based in Africa, including MTN and Vodacom, have joined global initiatives seeking to lift the standards of protection for consumers. Regulatory agencies are also stepping in to regulate the emerging digital technologies. In Senegal, the government recently banned TikTok and demanded the company pay content creators fairly before lifting the ban. In Kenya, the transport sector regulator ordered Bolt to compensate a driver whose services had been unfairly terminated.
In addition, individuals and communities are increasingly resorting to lawsuits against technology companies to vindicate their rights. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has witnessed a steady recourse to litigation by rights holders seeking accountability from technology companies in relation to internet shutdowns, surveillance, protection of workers, as well as the spread of misinformation on social media. In 2011, two NGOs filed a lawsuit in a French court against a technology firm for alleged complicity in surveillance in Libya. In early 2021, a South African telecommunications firm was sued in eSwatini court for shutting down the internet following an order by state authorities. Earlier in 2019, a court in Sudan ordered Zain to restore services to an individual who filed a lawsuit regarding internet disruption during a politically sensitive period. In 2023, a former employee of Sama, Meta’s contractor, filed a lawsuit in Kenya seeking compensation for alleged poor working conditions. In 2022, Meta was also sued for allegedly failing to regulate content leading to the spread of hate speech which reportedly resulted in the killing of ethnic minorities. In 2018, drivers affiliated to Uber sued the company in South Africa over concerns on working conditions.
The courts have also shown they are willing to stretch the limits of their orders. Perhaps in recognition of the uniqueness of the technology sector, a court in Kenya ordered its injunctive orders against a social media company applied to its operations beyond Kenya. Although only a small number of lawsuits have been successfully concluded, there are rich lessons for advocates to learn from them. CIPESA, a digital rights organisation, has documented the lessons from the Sudan case which can be helpful to those litigating against internet shutdowns in Africa.
Legal and procedural obstacles continue to impede access to justice. First, there is a lack of legislation on emerging issues related to technology. For example, very few countries have legislation on protection of gig economy workers. Secondly, the high cost of litigation undoubtedly locks out many aggrieved by the operations of technology companies. In light of these obstacles, states must intervene and review their laws to ensure they are at pace with the advancement in technology, taking due consideration to the peculiarities of the sector. For instance, there is a need for legislation on the gig economy, artificial intelligence and clarification of the obligations of businesses involved in setting the infrastructure necessary for accessing certain essential services, such as education and healthcare.
There have been encouraging examples of better practice. We have seen how data protection laws across the continent are increasingly being used to protect the right to privacy and how regulators are gradually taking the opportunity to protect rightsholders. In Kenya, the data protection regulatory agency recently imposed hefty fines against several businesses for breach of privacy, an action credited for growing awareness among other businesses on the need to protect customers’ data. This must be replicated in other facets of the digital technology sectors. The glass is half full, but it can be filled a bit more.
By Joseph Kibugu, Africa Regional Manager, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre