Mobile is critical for creating a truly “Digital Africa”, a connected region where digital technologies are delivering positive impacts to societies and economies. Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest growing mobile market in the world. Fuelled by growing access to mobile data services, the mobile ecosystem is flourishing, providing a platform for innovation that is generating employment opportunities and spurring the creation of new services.
This wave of growth is underpinned by increased availability of mobile data. By 2020, sixty percent of mobile connections are forecast to run over mobile broadband networks, almost double the number from 2016. In the same period, mobile data traffic is expected to grow by sixty-six percent. Global data flows are also creating new degrees of connectedness among economies, and digitalisation can positively impact GDP, and this surge in data is critical to economic opportunity in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In this new data-driven world, the mobile industry is focused on building the trust and confidence of users and, in so doing, enable data innovation that benefits citizens. This will hinge on the implementation of certain and consistent rules for data privacy that apply to all service providers.
Today, there are significant discrepancies within the region regarding principles incorporated into data privacy laws and how they are implemented nationally. In some countries, mobile licence conditions stipulate that certain user information or accounting information may not be transferred outside the country. In those same countries, other service providers are not subject to the same restrictions. If mobile operators are prevented from transferring data outside the country, it will inhibit their ability to bring the benefits of centralised cloud systems to the region. This will make operating within the global economy more difficult, and will deny consumers the innovative services and other benefits that come from fair competition and economies of scale.
In respect to data usage, mobile operators are also often subject to privacy-related restrictions in their licences or national law regarding what they can and cannot do with user data. In some circumstances, this may be reasonable and proportionate, however, we would urge governments to limit such restrictions to only those that are strictly necessary and, in any case, apply equally to all providers of communications or equivalent services.
Whilst inconsistent application of rules will affect mobile operators’ ability to compete, critically it prevents consumers’ privacy expectations from being met in a consistent way. To maximise growth, consumers must have confidence that data is being protected. However, as the lines blur between what type of service each service provider delivers, consumers are not always aware of the different privacy rules that apply or which provisions only impact one segment of the market. This can lead to a degradation of trust, meaning consumers are less willing to share information, less confident that their data will be used in accordance with stated mobile privacy policies and ultimately less likely to use data-based services.
Creating a regulatory environment across Sub-Saharan Africa that not only protects the privacy of consumers through consistent application of privacy rules but encourages the mobile industry’s ability to deliver innovative services is vital to unlocking social and economic benefits across the region.
The mobile industry urges governments throughout Sub-Saharan Africa to avoid legislating for specific types of data and instead focus on individual privacy concerns – ensuring that obligations are not tied to the type of service provider. This will guarantee that all providers of data services are subject to the same privacy regulations, creating an environment where consumers feel their data is safe and protected. This will allow all service providers to compete in the provision of data-based services and contribute to the growth of the data economy throughout the region.
Only by creating a level playing field in applicable regulation – regulation that not only protects consumers in a consistent way, but also promotes innovation – can digital technologies realise their full social and economic potential in Sub-Saharan Africa.
By John Giusti is the Chief Regulatory Officer of the GSMA