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African Countries Must Work Together for Good ID

Q&A: Titi Akinsanmi, Berkman Klein Fellow at Harvard University, talks about users taking more ownership of their identities, pan-African cooperation, and the true meaning of privacy

Titi Akinsanmi
Titi Akinsanmi: there is an increased push to engage and learn. Picture: FolaFayo.com

In our digital world, data and identity are increasingly intertwined. As the world responds to data-related scandals with new business models, checks, and balances, what is the appropriate governance for digital identity?

Regulation can play a powerful role in ensuring everyone can fully and fearlessly engage in digital society. Good policy decisions can not only empower individuals but also protect their right to privacy.

In this Q&A series, we talk to industry leaders about the policies, technology and practices which affect identification systems on the road to Good ID.

First up, we talk to Titi Akinsanmi, Berkman Klein Fellow at Harvard and public policy lead in Africa for a global digital firm, to find out how policy for digital ID could develop this year and what she hopes to see globally and on the African continent.

Tell us about you, Titi. You seem to wear many hats!

[Laughs] Yes I do and always have: I am a woman! For this I share three: I wear an academic hat as a Fellow with the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University; I have an ongoing role as public policy and affairs lead for a global digital firm; I am a mama to two beautiful daughters and wifey to a life purpose fulfilling matey!

A final hat - and I think this is probably the hat I’ve passionately worn the longest - is one where I am actively ensuring that digital technologies continue to enthuse and enable positively across generations.

These hats (yes all!) are key to my ability to contribute to the development of strategic policies, regulations and initiatives that drive innovation and shape the digital ecosystem across our continent - and how they in turn interact with and influence the world.

From being able to build users’ capacity to being responsible users of technology to facilitating and developing research that contributes to the discussions on key issues like privacy - its governance to digital identities.

So you have a strong focus on digital identity and best practice. Where do you see the policy landscape lying this year? What do you expect to see happening with policy in governments and the private sector for digital identity in particular?

In the last two years we have had more 'woke' users - individuals who are more aware of digital platforms, their digital lives, especially their identities and the trails that they are leaving behind.

We also have seen more intense participation from relatively smaller platform players, so technology startups and the like. And these two are key to how the policy landscape is morphing.

So far policy has been shaped by responding to existing players, their business strategies and practices. However, users and these smaller players have raised their voices via their own adaptive behavior, demanding a rethink in the policy landscape around issues like innovation, competition and of course privacy and digital identities.

A positive part of what revamps like the GDPR have triggered has been to put the end user, the individual, right at the centre of the data behind their digital identity.

Increasingly we are moving towards what seems to be a more equitable, more egalitarian regulatory plateau - though this brings complexity across jurisdictions - and possibly even more expensive regulatory space to navigate.

We’ll see increased regulation, no doubt. Not just policy statements but new regulations - Governments on my continent need to factor in the increasingly active and more centralized role that a 'woke' end user has; they need to position for foreign direct investment (FDI) yes, but with the knowledge that the African digital startup ecosystem is exportable.

A key tension I continue to encounter is this: there are individuals who, as a personal choice, want to be able to commercialize their digital identity, and at the other spectrum are others who dig deeper into ensuring complete privacy and anonymity.

Then we have more countries and continents where we need to look at local needs - how do security concerns enabled by digital platforms play in the narrative around digital rights and inclusion?

Is there anything around the African continent that you’re finding interesting in the year ahead?

It’s election year in key markets - Nigeria, South Africa. That usually shakes things up somewhat. There’s an increased push towards legislation even before this.

I can think of at least three or four countries. Uganda has finally passed its Data Protection Act. South Africa is doing really well in terms of the setup of its data protection operations as well.

So there is increased engagement from governments to set up the offices to engage with on privacy and ID issues, from Nigeria to Nairobi to South Africa. And there is a renewed attempt to work together - and I use the word “attempt” to work together because sometimes, you know, particularly on the African continent, the divisions go beyond the need, but there is an increased push to be able to engage and learn.

However I am significantly wary of joining a bandwagon simply because, all of a sudden, Good ID is suddenly sexy, right?

To address data and identity practices, it’s important to be clear on what the continent needs: to be able to cooperate and connect with each other better, across multiple many layers of economy, governance etc. That would then inform the ability to respond to existing privacy positions or privacy regulations across the continent.

As we approach 2020, I’d love to be able to see an innovation, growth and healthy competition enabling data privacy and governance regime - one that ensures no one is left behind.

I think this is something that’s applicable across the globe - but most of all on our continent - to ensure that we’re not leaving anyone behind. Because again our continent, inasmuch as it’s the next frontier, has really been quite significantly unconnected.

Do you agree that it’s possible to reach a situation where there is such a thing as Good ID in the world?

I’m an eternal optimist with a healthy dose of reality, and so Titi the optimist says: Yes. However, how we define good is based on significant cultural, economic and physical space differences.

Do we have a universal definition of privacy for instance? This is a key question of mine. Privacy is so significantly different across continents. What is privacy in my locale - in local law both formalized and customary? You can’t have Good ID without fully understanding what privacy is.

Think about the typical African community. One of the things that you’re told when you’re growing up is: “It takes a village to bring up a child.”

You know that you are everybody’s business. So if I’m everybody’s business, that technically means that knowledge of my identity is shared by everybody. In my context is that good or bad? So what is my ability to be able to own it even in a digital space?

How do you get to the point where you can then define that this is “Good ID”? Take Good ID in Europe for example. Obviously, my business is my business. Don’t get into my business. It’s my idea; I don’t want to share it. I don’t want people to manage how it goes.

But in some cases, in some communities you might say: “Hey, if it’s going to make the community work better I’d be happy to give it up.”

So we need to ask those fundamental questions. So the optimist in me says yes, we can achieve it. But achieving it will be significantly different. Good ID will be significantly different - in its shape, form and application in various local contexts.

  • Portrait of Titi Akinsanmi courtesy of Folafayo.

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