Copy of #TheSafeSpace Column published in the Times Of Swaziland on the 20th of July 2016:
Last year, I had a candid conversation with a 50 something year old gentleman during a meeting. Our discussion spanned many topics before eventually settling on technology and why the so called ‘old generation’ is generally not so keen to embrace certain forms of it. As the conversation evolved, this man who proudly referred to himself as ‘BBC’ (Born Before Computers), began to detail why the internet, or more specifically social media, is a danger to civilization and ‘national security’. In all honesty, when he referred to ‘natural security’, I almost burst out into laughter but a quick glance at his face made me realise that he was not kidding.
As I ponder on the increasing number of governments that are turning to switching off the internet for various reasons including concerns about ‘national security’, the conversation with Mr. BBC comes to mind. I could be speaking from a position of naivety but I find it difficult to understand how disabling the internet can be considered as a viable solution to any given problem that a country faces. I mean, it is incredibly easy to brand the internet as a dark world that gives birth to instability, rumours, and misconceptions but from my point of view that thought process is narrow-minded and pessimistic. In today’s world, the internet has become an integral part of a population’s world, both personally and professionally. The internet is not just about WhatsApp pictures and hilarious YouTube videos, it is also the vehicle that drives a significant proportion of the economy and puts much needed money in the pockets of millions. When we decide to clamp down on internet usage, we are literally sucking the life out of a population. A population that is already living below or dangerously close to the poverty line.
In many ways, the internet should not be perceived as a threat when it is actually an opportunity. It is an opportunity for governments to establish an effective two way communication mechanism with the citizens of a country. When embraced as opposed to feared, the internet can unlock innovative ways of running a country which can promote civic participation and democracy. In the past, disseminating information to a population was an expensive and tedious process but those days have come and gone. In the same way that the internet, particularly social media, has been used by non-state actors to change public sentiment is the same way that governments can harness this power to popularize its own messages and efforts.
Thankfully some governments in Africa and beyond have seen and dedicated themselves to harnessing the immense power that the internet has brought to development. We need more of this type of thinking and acting. We need leaders and governments that will go out of their way to embrace technology in all its forms, invest in it and ultimately utilize it to promote growth, communication and accountability. To conclude, we need to ensure that the rights of citizens are promoted and protected ‘online and offline’.
Feel free to share your comments with me through Twitter (@chr1sfleming), blog (www.chr1sfleming.wordpress.com) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org. Until we meet again, goodbye.