By 2018, over 51% of the global population had internet access. The strongest growth was reported in Africa, where the percentage using the internet increased from 2.1% in 2005 to 24.4% in 2018. Africa has the world’s fastest growing mobile market globally. In addition, the region has the fastest growing tech start-up ecosystem, which plays an increasingly important role in the development of digital content and services.

International Telecommunication Union

This growth has a transformational impact on the way business is conducted and in which people interact with each other, government, businesses and other stakeholders, giving rise to new business models and providing a wider scope for innovation. At the same time, the evolving landscape is creating new risks and challenges. Development gains from digital transformation are not automatic, and can result in new divides and widen inequalities.

To harness the potential of digital transformation, attention is needed in five key policy areas:

1. Digital identity, privacy and data protection

As part of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the Single Digital Market, several states are rushing to implement digital identity systems. This rush to identify individuals online and offline is happening as we debate how to protect our rights to privacy in an ever increasing surveillance reality, with the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection, the so-called Malabo convention, awaiting adoption.

Most of the current systems are being implemented without safeguards. We strongly believe that no digital ID system should be implemented without them, including strong privacy and data protection legislation. Legislation should contain strong obligations placed on data controllers and processors, requiring them to abide by principles of meaningful user consent, collection and purpose limitation, data minimization and data security; an empowered, well-resourced independent data protection commission; and robust protections for data subjects, providing users with control over their personal data and online experiences.

2. Digital economy taxation

There is a growing list of governments that have imposed, or are considering imposing a digital tax on popular Over-The-Top Services (OTTs) like Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP), social media sites and instant messaging. This includes additional levies on mobile money transactions, among others. These increased costs will have a disproportionate impact on low-income users in a region that still has the lowest rate of internet penetration in the world. While Africa recorded over 24% growth in internet access in 2018, affordability remains one of the most significant obstacles to universal access. Sector-specific taxes like these pose a huge threat on internet access, affordability and financial inclusion for low-income and marginalised groups. They also propagate the misconception that internet access and social media use are luxuries.

Policymakers and regulators will need to focus their attention on the realities of the digital economic ecosystem, identify components of internet access that are unusually expensive as key areas for intervention, and consider and adopt progressive policies that help to reduce these costs, including tax reforms.

3. Spectrum management

Wireless communication plays a critical role in connecting society, particularly in Africa. The rise of radio spectrum as a critical resource in the delivery of affordable access has led to the need for a more inclusive public debate with regard to spectrum management issues, and licensing and telecommunication infrastructure in general. The current models of radio spectrum management are still largely rooted in 20th-century analogue paradigms, and have yet to adapt to the growing diversity of connectivity provision models and the latest technology developments. These new approaches have the potential to enable universal and more affordable communications, especially in areas lacking connectivity, by enabling the unconnected to solve their own connectivity problems via small operators and community networks.

4. Unlocking the potential for voice

Voice technology is powerful, and speech interfaces are the next frontier for the internet. Smartphones, computers, in-car assistants, smart watches, lightbulbs, bicycles and thermostats – the number of speech-enabled devices is increasing daily. Voice interfaces are also critical to new technologies like virtual and augmented reality, enabling hands-free operation to assist visually and physically impaired users, and unlocking the power of the internet for those with limited literacy.

However, there are barriers to global innovation: start-ups, researchers or anyone else who wants to build voice-enabled technologies in their own language need large amounts of high-quality, transcribed voice data on which to train machine-learning algorithms. Africa, with its rich ethnic diversity, is disadvantaged: These new technologies are not always designed with African languages in mind, creating a gap between those who can use these new technologies for communications and those who cannot. This also hinders users’ abilities to exploit these applications for development interventions. Mozilla’s Common Voice and DeepSpeech projects are building the largest repository of voice data in the world, making voice recognition data and algorithms open and accessible to all.

5. Building internet infrastructure and digital skills

One of the biggest obstacles to the development of internet infrastructure in many countries is a lack of experienced network engineers. Countries lacking this expertise are at a major disadvantage when building infrastructure that can reach all citizens. In the absence of sufficient engineering expertise, national internet investment, policy and regulatory decisions may lack the technical foundation that will ensure an open, affordable, scalable internet. A critical mass of network engineers in all countries who can help shape the future of network infrastructure at both the local and global levels is needed to unlock the full potential of the open and accessible internet for everyone.