Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Great Firewall of Africa.


Africa The Great Wall of China is an awesome piece of world history and architecture created in the so-called Middle Kingdom between the 5th and 16th centuries BC. This wall stretches for over 8,000 km and was built to protect the nation then from invasion. The “Great Firewall of China“, is a euphemism for the technology the Chinese government has put in place to control what websites (mostly from outside China) their citizens can see. This prevents people in China for accessing what their governments consider to be unacceptable content. They are locked away from the rest of the digital global village seeing only of filtered view of the world. The major international internet services such as Google and Yahoo have also been a part of the Great Firewall by filtering their content as required by the Chinese government.

There is another great firewall. Unlike the Chinese one, this is not imposed by any government and it is not to keep anything from getting in. Rather, it keeps much of a continent locked out. It is not acknowledged, identified or much commented about. However, it is similarly bad for the people encircled by it. It is an insult to their right to access internet resources across the world. I refer to the Great Firewall of Africa.

A couple of years ago, after I got my first debit card, I tried to purchase something online from HP.com. The order failed. Apparently HP doesn’t accept credit or debit cards that are not issued by US banks. Good enough. That is their choice. However, I recently discovered that if you do have a US issued card, and you try to make a purchase from an IP address that is outside the US, (even if the delivery address is in the US), the order will not be successful - and they won’t let you know why. It took a conversation with their support people to discover this. Now this may not be only Africa or Nigeria specific, but anecdotal evidence suggests that other online service providers do explicitly block out Nigeria and other African nations. I work with several Americans and several of them have testified that they cannot access their bank accounts and other personal web services from within Nigeria. The only way they can do their transactions is from the office because their internet connection is routed through the UK and the US.

Services like PayPal provide financial services that make it simple, safe and efficient to move funds and perform transactions on the internet. You can tie a PayPal account to a bank account and efficiently conduct commerce, funds transfers and other services with ease. PayPal is famously not available to Nigerians, - not by IP address, but by any form of indication that you are resident in Nigeria. Their services are simply not available in way that they can be consumed by Nigerians in Nigeria - and they are not the only one. Google Checkout is a system for masking your credit card information and placing orders online. Well Google will happily register my Nigerian issued debit card in their system, but will not let me make Nigeria a shipping destination.

Wikipedia has this to say about the phenomenon called IP banning: “IP banning is also used to limit the syndication of content to a specific region. To achieve this IP-addresses are mapped to the countries they have been assigned to. This has been used to devastating effect most recently to target Nigerian IPs due to the perception that all business emanating from the country is fraudulent. Thus making it extremely difficult for legitimate businesses based in the country to interact with their counterparts in the rest of the world. To make purchases abroad, Nigerians rely on proxy companies to mediate transactions”. While IP blocking or banning is the most blatant form of discrimination, I find what HP is doing more insulting. At least with the banning, I don’t waste time on your website at all. At HP you spend time, do all the ordering, then your payment is rejected.

The reason Wikipedia gives is also the main reason many sites do what they do to us in Nigeria. From one perspective, it’s understandable in the light of the 419 problem. On the other hand, as I asked someone today, if they block access from Nigeria to prevent fraud, what do they do to prevent fraud from inside their own countries where the incidence of fraud is far greater? According to the Internet Fraud, Scam and Crime Statistics - 2009, the following stats about fraud perpetrators hold true:

· 77.4% were male and

· 50% resided in one of the following states: California, New York, Florida, Texas, District of Columbia, and Washington.

· The majority of reported perpetrators (66.1%) were from the United States; however, a significant number of perpetrators where also located in the United Kingdom, Nigeria, Canada, China, and South Africa.

The person I was speaking with had the perspective that all of us suffer from the activities of the fraudsters. Not just in the risk of being defrauded, but from our freedoms being curtailed in order to protect themselves.

Examples abound of this tacit discrimination against us and it’s not just about websites. technologies like the iPhone and the Blackberry limit what applications you can download and install, they determine what music you can buy or stream for free. All based on where you live. The XO, a special notebook designed for the poor children of the world can only be purchased by governments, or by US residents once a year. So as individual Africans we cannot contribute this innovative computing technology to our own communities because One Laptop Per Child did not take our abilities into account.

There is a fundamental disdain being demonstrated for Africans and Nigerians. It may be subtler, but no different from the mentality that thinks we live in trees and don’t wear clothes. It is the same insult that dumps toxic chemicals on our shores. It is the limited mindset that focuses on giving aid to Africa rather than engaging the African entrepreneur in a way that is a real win for all parties. It is a missed economic opportunity, and it is their loss.

As it is, all I have spoken about is ecommerce examples. Who knows what sites there are that hide useful knowledge and information simply because of conceptions (no doubt some are true) about Africans and Nigerians. Information that could be a precious resource to us all.

What should we do about it?

First of all, I think we should scream as loudly as possible. Rather than the Minister of Information complaining about jokes in a Sony advert, the ministers of trade around the continent should be putting pressure on our trading partners across the oceans to make companies remove these unjustified blockades. Nigeria, let’s use our oil as our leverage.

Secondly, we should develop our own home-grown solutions. We are a continent of very smart people. We know our peoples’ needs and interests. We know the terrain better than anyone from outside. We can create products and services for our internet that will rock the world. Let’s do an India on them and make them clamour for our technology expertise. Let’s make them come to us.


Image Courtesy of jonhardm at Flickr.com