Africa should join tech regulation drive


The move to regulate Big Tech companies that was started by the European Union introducing the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018 is now gaining momentum, with the US and China seeking to cut back the power some of these firms have amassed over the past 10 years.

The significance of the EU regulation is linked to how it gave citizens a stronger say over what firms could do with their data.

It also served as an inspiration for lawmakers outside the bloc, including in Brazil and Australia. But Africa seems to be missing when it comes to global discussions on tech regulations.

In the US, for example, since Joe Biden came to power, both Republicans and Democrats agree that companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon have become too powerful. China has moved quickly to regulate the likes of Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent.

And this has forced Ant the financial company of Alibaba to abandon its IPO that was destined to be the largest ever.

Instead, the founder Jack Ma was kicked out. The Chinese government has since intensified its regulatory interventions by fining several large tech companies for abusing their dominant positions often through blocking competitors from using their platforms.

The US, for its part, is now collaborating with the EU to intensify the scrutiny of Big Tech.

This spearheaded the creation of a formal EU-US Trade and Technology Council to improve the online ecosystem, enforce antitrust laws as well as scrutinise the market power of major tech companies.

The question that is in people’s minds is: why now? Governments are working towards protecting data by controlling the antitrust agenda and trying to understand the vulnerabilities and risks associated with these giant companies.

The other issue is the growing geopolitical tensions that often confuse the real reasons for regulating these organisations.

The competitiveness of these organisations centres around the emerging technologies such as big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

As it is often said,data is the new oil and for those who understand how to mine it, they will create enormous wealth.

Big Pharma, for example, needs our health data to develop new medicines and vaccines. Africa, however, comes last to benefit from products developed out of its data.

The impact of Covid-19 has also revealed the hypocrisy behind vaccine nationalism after the continent’s data was used to validate efficacy of the certain solution.

Scholars too have begun to weigh in on the seriousness of the emerging issues.

Last week I attended three global academic conferences trying to interrogate issues ranging from cross-border data flows, digital taxation, regulation of new technologies and international standards, digital market competition, labour in the digital age and cybersecurity.

While acknowledging that digitalisation is fundamentally altering global economic and political interactions, it is also posing a slew of legal and regulatory concerns.

Missing in all these debates is how underdeveloped countries in especially Africa will be allowed to participate in this and other international forums.

Africa’s participation in global conversation on Big Tech regulations is urgent. But for that to happen there must be a deliberate effort by policymakers to respond to a number of concerns.

First is the need to align higher education to the emerging technologies in every discipline. Second is focusing on the educational agenda by revising the curriculum of the entire education systems and investing in research.

Third is enhancing collaborations on matters of technology and supporting digital skills programmes while, at the same time, making institutional reforms to deliver and maintain digital content for learning purposes.

Other important interventions are building capacities to manage a rapidly changing technological environment, creating an enabling regulatory environment to support disruptive technologies, and distributing infrastructural investment in rural and urban centres.