What does this “Brave New World” of information and communication, openness and secrecy, theft and exposure mean for the future of East Africa?

*Certainly there is much that is tremendously exciting and encouraging in what is going on with “ICT” in Kenya, especially. The exponential worldwide spread of the Ushahidi platform for voluntary citizen action in all sorts of areas–as Foreign Policy’s recognized in naming Ory Okolloh to its Top 100 Global Thinkers list–is an example. Likewise, the M-Pesa money transfer system and its various competitors has created a double “generation skipping technology” for Kenyans, the majority of whom never had a either a landline phone or reasonable access to a bank.

*From Memeburn.com, “20 Kenyan web and tech innovations worth watching”.

*Kenyans all over the world can read the Kenyan papers, watch Kenyan television and listen to Kenyan radio, participate in the Kenyan dialogue and communicate affordably and in “real time’ and with some presumable degree of privacy beyond what would have been feasible in times past–as can citizens of other countries in the region.

*Tools like Mazalendo and the websites of activists like the Mars Group have hugely expanded public access to information about government in Kenya. Recently, the Kenyan Parliament has allowed broadcasting and published documents on-line itself, as have other organizations.

*At the same time, we see with that Wikileaks tools that can be used to promote openness and democracy within states, can be used on a globalized basis by individuals and groups operating outside the rule of law within states and outside democratic accountability. No one elected Assange or the people around him. The underlying documents appear to have been essentially stolen en masse, as opposed to “leaked”. The documents were property of the U.S. government and were created by U.S. public employees doing their jobs. One one hand they were official public records and not private communications, and should have been written with that understanding. At the same time, American law provided in some cases for these to be specifically classified for periods of 10 to 25 years. While many of us get frustrated at the way it can work in practice, the U.S. does have an extremely broad and open “Freedom of Information Act” for review and release of requested information.

*We see in the arts that theft undermines the ability of artists to get paid for their work when they make it available digitally, or even when they don’t willingly do so. A generation has come of age in which vast numbers who wouldn’t steal a CD in a record store will download huge numbers of copyrighted music files without paying.

*I noted long ago the Wikileaks release of the Kroll Report on corruption in the Kenyan government. I have felt that was a public service–it was a specific document that should have been finished and released in the first place, and it would have been dangerous for anyone to publish it in Kenya because of the legitimate fear of unlawful repression. Amnesty International gave an award last year to Wikileaks for its work making available information on Kenya’s extrajudicial killings. Does that mean that it would be appropriate for someone to steal and publish all or most of Kenya’s diplomatic correspondence? Uganda’s? China’s? India’s? What about central bank records? All private bank records? All police records? All records of a civil society organization or a political party? All communications among members of parliament? Who decides?

*Technology is opening vast new possibilities but our moral judgment and the means by which we evaluate and make decisions about what is appropriate may not be well prepared.

*When I was contacted by the New York Times when they were working on their story about the withheld IRI Kenya exit poll (initially in July 2008 after it was released by UCSD at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, but before IRI retracted its previous statement that it was invalid), I agreed to be interviewed and tell the reporter what I knew. I related a comment the Ambassador made to me personally about one Kenyan politician, but told them that I was not comfortable with that being published because it was in fairness a private conversation, and that the Ambassador was entitled to his opinion, as opposed to specific actions that involved my job and that I was concerned about. These things are a difficult judgment.

One thought on “What does this “Brave New World” of information and communication, openness and secrecy, theft and exposure mean for the future of East Africa?

  1. Pingback: Interrupt your entertainment schedule: “Technology is opening vast new possibilities but our moral judgment . . . may not be well prepared.” | AfriCommons Blog

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