Can An Alliance Get Access to Platform Data for African Researchers?Justin Hendrix / Jan 5, 2024
Nearly every list of recommendations on ‘what to do’ about problems attributed to social media and other large internet platforms in recent years has included some version of “provide access to data for independent researchers.” The idea is that more scrutiny of how platforms work and their impacts on society will give policymakers– and the platforms themselves– the basis to make smart interventions driven by evidence. It’s about addressing the asymmetries of power and information between democratic governments, civil society, and powerful technology companies.
Along these lines, a call put out last year by Research ICT Africa, a nonprofit think tank that conducts “research on digital governance, policy and regulation,” asked a simple question: “What if there were an African alliance for meaningful access to intermediaries’ data holdings?”
In December, following a set of workshops on this question with researchers gathered in Nigeria, Tanzania, and South Africa, Research ICT Africa published a report titled “Towards an African alliance for meaningful access to Intermediaries’ data holdings.” The research was supported by the Action Coalition for Meaningful Transparency (ACT), an initiative of the Danish Government's Tech for Democracy Initiative, of which RIA is a member.
Getting to the answers contained in the report required asking a different set of questions than might be necessary to consider in the US or Europe, according to Dr. Alison Gillwald, the executive director of Research ICT Africa and the leader of a doctoral program at the University of Cape Town’s Nelson Mandela School on the Digital Economy and Society. She says researchers at African universities are disadvantaged in multiple ways.
“Many African universities are teaching universities, they don't have research resources. And I mean even getting access to common public data statistics and those kinds of things that are widely available across more mature economies and democracies,” said Dr. Gillwald.
Even for researchers with more resources, it is challenging to get meaningful access to platform data. Lawmakers in various jurisdictions across the world have sought to ensure independent researchers have access to such data, with varying success. In Europe, the recently enacted Digital Services Act (DSA) includes Article 40, which requires platforms to “provide access to data to vetted researchers.” The rules and procedures for such access are still being sorted out. That still puts the EU ahead of the US, where the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act is stuck in the Senate. But it may still be years before there are results from research projects conducted under the auspices of the DSA or other laws that require data access for researchers.
But even as progress is made in Europe, those concerned with platform accountability are beginning to ask how to make such access available to researchers in nations where there are more severe power and knowledge asymmetries, particularly in the Global Majority. The Research ICT Africa initiative seeks to determine how to overcome the post-colonial dependency on Global North resources for knowledge and information.
“Certain universities in the Global North have begun to receive preferential access to data,” said Dr. Gillwald. Without some mechanism to ensure equal access, the asymmetry may ultimately be exacerbated by the existence of the DSA, forcing African researchers to rely on partnerships with European institutions if they want to study phenomena taking place in their own countries.
Liz Orembo, a research fellow at Research ICT Africa, described the field work with African researchers she conducted to assess their needs. She found researchers hungry to do meaningful work on platform data, but many obstacles impede it.
“The demand is there, people are looking for this data,” said Orembo. But the only researchers able to do the work so far are “those who have financial means, those who have capacity to scrape through data.” The vision to overcome these obstacles is to eventually build a common platform for African researchers to plug into and address topical issues such as elections, misinformation, and platform governance.
“It's the year of elections, and Africa's got some key elections,” said Guy Berger, the former director of policies and strategies in communication and information at UNESCO. He wants to see a pilot project in 2024 in order to enable research in this election cycle, which is one of the recommendations in the report.
Berger also underscored the need for more accessible data for researchers at civil society organizations, particularly to combat misinformation and for fact-checking purposes. This is especially important given that there are, in some cases, more resources available in NGOs and civil society groups than in African universities. And, he discussed the background work done for UNESCO's guidelines on platform governance, and related research for the Action Coalition for Meaningful Transparency, highlighting the importance of data access and greater transparency by tech firms in regions like Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
Dr. Gillwald said one particular area African researchers might be able to offer insight is in both the efficacy and the experience of content moderators working on the continent.
“There is this large-scale moderation going on, but it's highly problematic,” said Dr. Gillwald. “It's certainly problematic from a labor perspective, but certainly also problematic in terms of its effectiveness in controlling disinformation and disorder and harmful content and those kinds of things.” When it comes to Africa, tech firms provide less insight into such questions through transparency reporting, she said.
The report suggests one next step, in addition to continued dialogue with stakeholders, is to engage with governments. There are signs that African governments are developing better coordination on tech policy issues across the African Union. Recent collaboration on a data policy framework is one example. Research ICT Africa hopes to engage in “ongoing discussions with the African Union, and sub-regional African bodies, so as to develop practical alignments with the implementation dimensions of the Data Policy Framework.”
The report also recommends more engagement with local representatives of tech firms. Following the publication of the Research ICT Africa report, the organization coordinated a joint statement from over 50 media and research stakeholders across the continent “calling for social media platforms to give equal treatment to Africans in line with what is being offered to researchers in major jurisdictions outside the continent.” According to the statement, the group had invited tech firms such as X (formerly Twitter), Meta, Google, and TikTok to be part of discussions on platform data held in Cape Town, “but representatives of these platforms did not attend.”
But in the long run, should this coalition prove successful, it might be possible to develop frameworks for data governance and data access that serve not only to provide data for research, but also to leverage it to develop African artificial intelligence (AI) systems that could be used across various applications. Addressing broader data governance issues in Africa might ensure African countries can chart their own path forward in the digital age, leading to a future in which African institutions have a stronger standing and influence over global tech regulation and data practices.
Ultimately, independent research “is just one of the prongs of accessing data in order to be able to develop our own systems and own innovations, and actually address our own problems,” said Dr. Gillwald.