Globally, Facebook continues to dominate as the most used social media platform with 2.27 billion active accounts. This is followed by YouTube (1.9 billion), WhatsApp (1.5 billion) and Facebook’s Messenger (1.3 billion). According to Quartz Africa, a report put out by CIPESA (pdf) found out that social media user information requests from African governments have accelerated between 2013 and 2016.
Egypt was one of the top four African nations who have requested user data from Facebook, alongside Nigeria, Tunisia, and Botswana. Though Egypt was also among the top five African countries requesting data from Google.
While the companies’ reports are vital to understanding censorship and surveillance by governments, CIPESA cautions that they can’t be used as a sole measure of the extent of surveillance and censorship of content by government. But they do show the scale of requests from individual governments for subscriber data and content removal.
South Africa, Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya, and Egypt have all consistently requested user information from Google, Facebook, and Twitter; and from Africa-based mobile operators such as MTN and Orange.
Last year, Facebook received requests from 18 African governments last year with the most requests coming from South Africa, Egypt, and Sudan, including a request from Ghana to restrict access to content which it claimed violated its national laws; Since 2013, Google has gotten requests for user information from 10 African countries, with Kenya making the highest number of total requests; and Twitter has received user information requests from five countries Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and South Sudan in the last five years.
Facebook does not always comply with these requests. For example, in the second half of 2016, it only complied with three of South Africa’s six user information requests. Google complied with 63% of requests made by Kenya in the second half of 2013 but rejected all of Kenya’s other requests. Twitter complied with some of the “emergency requests” from Kenya and Nigeria, but rejected content removal requests from South Africa in 2016.
Nigeria requested the most information than any other African government, asking for data on 119 Facebook user accounts (lmao, wow!). Not surprising, since the Nigerian military recently admitted to monitoring social media accounts for anti-government and anti-military information.
Last year, the Nigerian government proposed a social media regulation bill prescribing a jail term and a $10,000 fine for “maliciously discrediting public office holders”. The bill was withdrawn by the Senate only after intense public and social media criticism. And earlier this year, the Cameroonian government imposed a 93-day internet shutdown on English-speaking parts of the country to quell anti-government protests.
African snowflakes governments are struggling to accept the voice that social media has granted its citizens, instead choosing to regard the criticism and vocalness as dissent. While we understand asking for user data in connection to criminal investigations and emergencies, many of the data requests show something else: the need for African governments top exert complete control and censorship over their citizens.
On a related note, Uber is reportedly pulling a feature from its app that allows the company to track riders for up to five minutes after ending the trip, the company’s chief security officer Joe Sullivan tells Reuters. While the newswire speculates that the move comes as part of the company’s strategy to reshape its tattered reputation which led to the downfall of CEO Travis Kalanick, Sullivan insists that the move is just part of his team’s work to beef up customer security. There had been allegations that Uber’s “God View” was used to track a journalist who has been critical to the company. The move to tighten customer privacy comes amid allegations that Egypt has been asking Uber and its biggest local rival Careem to provide it with user data. Sharing of this data may be mandatory for the company, as the New York Times had reported that the new Ride Hailing Apps Act would oblige these companies to provide the government with user data.