Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Consumer access to knowledge is vital for Africa's development

Dieunedort Wandji of Consumers International explains why consumer protection in the digital age is so important to Africa and developing countries. 

Although consumer protection is weak in many developing countries, consumers across the Global South will make a giant leap in claiming their rights by effectively benchmarking international advocacy on digital consumer rights issues.

This was the impression I was left with after attending Consumers International’s Access to Knowldge (A2K) meeting (Consumers in the Information Society: Access, Fairness and Representation, 8-9 March, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia).  The diversity of participants and far-reaching content captured the varied and versatile challenges of consumers in the digital age. Many of which are crucial to the developing world. 

As I sat through all these inspiring presentations about consumer protection in the information society and tried to make sense of them from an African perspective, it began to dawn on me that the developing world’s stake in this battle is a double-fold one.

African consumers in particular are poised to benefit more than anyone else from CI’s vanguard approach in the protection of consumers in the information society, as laid out at Kuala Lumpur meeting.

As he plays his games on my laptop, my five-year-old son is still suspicious about my story that, growing up in Africa, it was not until I became a university student that I was able to first set eyes on a computer. I presume the African digital consumer of tomorrow is likely to be unaware of a lot that has come before. While enjoying doing creative work, tomorrow’s African consumer might not realise just how much RMC (Rights Management Corporations) had twisted laws to invade privacy or abused technology to pervert ownership rights. 

I look forward to the time in Africa when the digital consumer will have no knowledge of today’s limitations and frustrations.  This unawareness of past battles will however depend on how quickly and efficiently African consumer rights groups pick up the pace of international advocacy trends today. More precisely, this will depend on their ability to build on CI’s A2K momentum so as to tackle the twin issues currently affecting the African consumer in fast changing digital markets: access and protection.

As any advance in digital technology nowadays carries a global impact, it is of critical importance that the efforts of the consumer movement in the developing world be inversely proportional to the number of actual users of digital products and services.

There are challenges lying ahead for consumer organisations in the developing world. Apart from the necessity for African countries to emulate the policies and regulations of European countries, there is the need to prevent developing countries from becoming retreat bases for failed RMC abuse attempts. In fact, as has been the case with tobacco regulations, there is concern that vulnerable copyright regulatory frameworks can be taken advantage of, to implement abusive policies that could not be pushed through in the developed world. For instance, it has now become illegal in India to share a joke over the internet, without appropriately quoting your sources!

Yet again, as much as the digital consumer needs protection in Africa, campaigning for access remains equally important. The latest CI Global Consumer Survey on Broadband (pdf)  for instance suggests that access to broadband technology is becoming a “prerequisite for consumers’ full participation in civic and cultural life”. At the same time, many experts report that less than 5% of Africans having access to new technologies such as computers, smart phones and other devices that support access to broadband. 

The digital divide seems to be widening and taking on various forms. Instead of being commensurate to local income levels, IT products turn out to be more expensive on African markets. Just as we are revolted by the mere thought that public libraries in their present form would never have existed, had current copyright laws preceded them, it is equally unacceptable that access to collective knowledge in Africa should be hampered through abusive regulations, unfair pricing and contrived technological barriers.

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