We, the Internet is about citizens deliberating to help decision-makers better understand the digital world of tomorrow. In 2020, 80 countries responded to Missions Publiques’ call to participate in a global citizen dialogue on the themes of disinformation, data protection, digital identity and Internet governance. This year, it will be a Citizen Dialogue around the Global Digital Compact, an agreement launched by the United Nations between governments, private sector, citizens and other stakeholders, to address together the challenges of online human rights, Internet connectivity and access, freedom of expression and more.
In May, Internet Society Burkina Faso and their partners, in collaboration with Missions Publiques, organised the first ever pilot dialogue in Ouagadougou, the country’s capital. 200 citizens attended, we met three of them…
Hadjar, 24. “Many people didn’t know that there had been a coup because of the Internet blackouts.”
Hadjar is a 24-year-old girl from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Her hobby is to design and create posters for weddings, invitation cards, posters. And when she is not spending her free time designing, printing and displaying her creations on the marketplace, she studies applied information sciences at the University of Ouagadougou.
She almost didn’t participate in the We, the Internet citizen dialogue. “The dialogue itself might not have taken place because of a torrential rain that morning, sometimes the rains last for days and sweep everything away. The authorities advise us not to go out in that case, but I wanted to be part of this debate. So, I braved the storm and I made my way to the dialogue!”
What did she have to share? Her experience of internet outages during her studies or during the coup last January.
“After the coup, we didn’t know who had taken power until they made announcements a few days later because there was an Internet blackout. Part of the population didn’t even know there had been a coup, we were in the dark. That’s why it’s important to have stable access to the Internet.
Internet outages “can also happen during lessons“. And when it happens, everyone just has to go home. But many, like her, cannot afford to take online courses from home. In Burkina Faso, an ADSL Internet subscription costs about €85, for an annual salary of about €750, or €60 per month. Although Internet access has become almost a norm in the capital, the cost of the connection remains high for everyone to benefit from it. “And when you leave Ouaga’ or go to the outskirts of the city, the connection access is even more difficult.”
The real debate, for her, was in considering the number one priority of the Global Digital Compact launched by the UN Secretary General. At her table, “some said that access was paramount, while others replied that if the data is not secure, what good is open access? They weren’t entirely wrong, because before we expand the Internet, we need to be sure that our data is confidential, otherwise it’s not worth it.
Fofana, 40 years old. “Awakening young teenagers for a better use of social networks”
Director of information systems at the National Road Safety Office in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), Fofana is also a part-time teacher in higher education. It was at the end of a course that one of his students informed him of a citizen dialogue taking place in Ouagadougou on the future of the Internet.
“This dialogue will undoubtedly contribute to raising young people’s awareness of how to use social networks more responsibly. What are the good practices young people should think of while using Facebook and WhatsApp? What are the existing sanctions? The young people who attended asked so many questions that we ran out of time by several dozen minutes. It is rare and precious to see this enthusiasm among teenagers and young adults.” For Fofana, the young people were particularly enthusiastic because of a vast Burkinabe awareness-raising campaign that came at the right time a few days before the dialogue on “confidentiality and integrity, on the information that is altered and passed on, on the digital path to ensure the reliability of a source.”
“Young people think that anything is allowed with smartphones! I’m happy to see that they came out of this exchange edified because they realised the dangerous potential risks and hot-button issues related to WhatsApp in particular.”
The country, like 30 others on the African continent, currently has a law on data protection. This law was discussed at length with the participants, and the implementation of the law was debated. “As a teacher, I learned about the latest provisions of the Protection of Individuals with regard to the Processing of Personal Data Act, which I will also be able to share with my students.
When Missions Publiques asked Fofana for a photo to illustrate his portrait, he replied ironically, “My photo? it’s personal data, but I will give you my consent…”. An instructive dialogue that leads him to conclude that “Despite Ramadan and Lent, time just flew by!”
Sagnon, “This citizens’ dialogue reminded me of the palaver tree”
Sagnon has put his life at the service of youth protection on social media. His role in the citizen dialogue? Facilitate a group of 15 participants. A challenge he took up for the first time “because debating is a way to move ideas around, and the need to change mentalities towards social media is huge here in Burkina.” Familiar with the young Burkinabe generation, Sagnon knows the risks: “Young people reveal content without knowing that this same content can catch up with them as they grow older.”
Young people’s testimonies are all the more necessary because the challenge of this dialogue is multi-faceted: to understand the needs of citizens by sharing their experiences, but also to inform and raise awareness.
Today, “even those who did not go to school use the Internet, without even knowing the laws. The young people who post pictures are innocent, often minors, they don’t know that when they open themselves to the world, they also expose themselves to its perils. I think that the young people who participated in the dialogue, the most vulnerable ones, will think twice before publishing photos on the Internet or on their applications.” He was pleased to see that parents of young children were present also, because “the parent is not aware and can find himself or herself faced with a child who is withdrawn, disowned by his or her peers and who can jeopardise his or her education and future.”
“This dialogue reminded me of the palaver tree, with its arrangement of chairs. At home, especially in West Africa, when we have a problem that is important to us, we find a tree somewhere that provides shade, we sit under its leaves and we talk!
In front of the videos presented at the beginning of the session, Sagnon was surprised to see “that we are not the only ones facing these risks, nor to make them known around us. It’s not just in our developing countries, it’s a global issue. The Internet is everyone, from the small shopkeeper to the civil servant.”