As a social scientist working on the intersection of technology and politics, my work is focused on providing evidence that can inform policy processes on information technology. One of the key academic question I keep coming back to is how does the flow of information in a society affect its power relations? Stated otherwise, how do the processes of data access, collection, processing, storage and sharing relate to individual consent, corporate interests and state authority? By information controls, I borrow from Open Net Initiative definition of ‘actions conducted to deny, disrupt, or monitor information for political ends.’
This general question has led my research through various projects as explained below.
National Security and Internet Freedom: Which laws underpin this relationship in Ethiopia, South Sudan and Kenya?
As countries in Eastern Africa confront both domestic and foreign security threats, and especially terrorism, laws and regulations have been seen as necessary interventions to create the capacity of national security agencies achieve their end-state. These legal instruments have more often than not led to increased information controls in the form of censorship, surveillance, physical arrests and torture of individuals holding or sharing information considered a threat to national security. Internet tools like websites, messaging platforms, and circumvention tools, have been highly targeted owing to their potency to scale information to masses.
My research has sought to understand the nature of information controls and laws underpinning them, existing oversight structures and what, if any, counter-controls are observed in the three countries.
Internet Access and Freedom of Expression: Applying the Technology Diffusion Model in Four Counties in Kenya. (2015-2016)
This study explores differentiated access to the Internet in four counties in Kenya and what factors explain the variance. Further, the study seeks to test whether differentiated access to the Internet affects people’s freedom of expression. The study adopts the Technology Diffusion Model (Comin and Hobijn, 2010) to look at how technology interacts with geography from an economic point of view, focusing on the relationship between a country’s historical rate of technology adoption and its per capita income. In the model of technology diffusion and growth, the adoption lag of a technology (the length of time between the invention and adoption of a technology) is related to the level of productivity embodied in the capital associated with the technology. We proceed to test two main hypotheses. One, that digital divide diminishes with increased adoption of non-technical factors affecting ownership and use of the Internet technology. This hypothesis is tested by comparing the levels of adoption and use of the Internet in four counties with varying levels of income, digital skills and urbanization. Two, an increase in access to the Internet increases an individual’s participation in public affairs. This hypothesis is tested by comparing the frequency of participation in governance affairs across different counties over time.
Information Controls and Political Processes: Elections, Information Controls and Counter Controls (2016 -present)
Increasing empirical evidence has demonstrated that political events such as elections, protests, and contested anniversaries can influence when and how information controls are enacted. The 2016 elections in Uganda, Chad and Congo Brazzaville where an increase in information controls were reported. Using a “mixed methods” in researching forms of information controls, and especially Internet shutdowns, this project is a joint effort with OONI, a technical network measurement organization. This, it is hoped, will develop a deeper understanding of motivations for information controls and what impact this has on individual rights, economy, and national stability.
Conditional Visibility: Managing the Paradox of Visibility on the Internet for Sexual Minorities.
Even though studies on the use of the Internet in the pursuit of LGBTQ rights show differentiated outcomes across regions, there is geenral agreement on two main observations; as much as the Internet powers freedom of expression, this visibility opens fronts for attacks targeting individuals and organizations tagged as queer. This is especially so in countries where homosexuality is criminalized and socially condemned, in this case Kenya, my current site of study. The dilemma of managing the freedom and risk for sexual minorities presented by the Internet is an interesting topic both for its direct advocacy and policy implications and academic potency on how technology mediates domination and resistance in society.
Biometrics, Elections and Privacy: The Kenyan Experience
Disputed election results have been a common flashpoint for violence in the African region, with significant costs on social and economic sectors. In a bid to improve the credibility of elections, and hopefully avoid such scenarios, a favored recommendation has been the adoption of technology to especially improve voter registration, verification, identification, and increasingly election results transmission. This adoption of technology is premised on the promise of building trust and efficiency in the election process. After the disputed Kenyan 2007 election and the attendant violence, biometric technology was adopted for voter roll preparation and identification at polling stations. The extent to which biometric technology has improved the credibility of Kenyan elections is still a contested claim, with the March 2013 and the recently nullified August 2017 elections plagued with functional failure and limited transparency respectively. An evaluation of how the biometric technology has been acquired and deployed in Kenya reveals disproportionate emphasis on financial costs as compared to the core value proposition of the technology - its security and transparency.