MTN headquarters in Fairlands, Johannesburg. Picture: BLOOMBERG/WALDO SWIEGERS
MTN headquarters in Fairlands, Johannesburg. Picture: BLOOMBERG/WALDO SWIEGERS

Information saves lives during this pandemic, and telecommunications helps keep our economies and health and education systems running. Telcos are key actors in the fight for human rights and public welfare, and MTN is one of Africa’s most prominent telecom service providers. Yet its dealings are almost completely opaque and require drastic transformation to meet our challenge to “build back better”, as the UN demands.

With a poor record of disclosures affecting the human rights of more than 190-million subscribers in Africa and across the Middle East, MTN is neither a role model nor an outlier in the region. The company was implicated in at least eight internet shutdowns in 2019, and has shown blatant neglect of customer privacy.

But what sets MTN apart now is the crossroads it faces: new leadership, new path, or business as usual? Internet users and ICT leaders alike are watching to see how the appointment of CEO Ralph Mupita plays out: will the company seize this opportunity to clean up its act? Image is everything, and in a statement announcing the appointment Mupita referred to the capacity of MTN to “play an important and leading role in digital and financial inclusion of the African continent, working with our stakeholders and partners”.

The company knows its effects on human rights, having set out a strong public position in support of the “rights of all people to communicate, access and share information freely ... and to enjoy privacy and security regarding their data and their use of digital communications”. However, we are yet to see these commitments become actions, particularly throughout the rebuilding of economies ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Actively swimming against a tide pushing for transparency and accountability across the tech sector, MTN has not met its commitments under international human rights standards, including the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms. MTN’s position as a global leader across 20 markets in Africa and the Middle East, serving hundreds of millions of subscribers, accords the company vast power and makes its lack of transparency and accountability about data privacy and protection — and unquestioning compliance with government-ordered internet shutdowns — nothing less than alarming.

When we knock on MTN’s door the company closes the curtains and turns out the lights. This is bad for business

There’s a strong business case for the company to transform. Transparency shows investors a company’s risks and gives customers confidence their rights and interests are respected. But MTN doesn’t measure up. Compared with its peers MTN has a poor record of disclosures. According to the 2019 Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) Corporate Accountability Index, MTN ranked eighth out of 12 telecommunications companies based on an evaluation of its disclosed policies for its prepaid and postpaid mobile services and fixed-line broadband service in SA. Though MTN has openly committed to improving its performance in the RDR Index, its scores were particularly low on the company’s policies about freedom of expression and privacy, continuing to disregard transparency and human rights.

MTN’s subsidiaries were involved in at least eight internet shutdowns mass disruptions of access to the internet at key times, such as elections in 2019, according to Access Now and #KeepItOn coalition data. MTN has not sufficiently disclosed its policies for handling orders by governments for network shutdowns a necessity given its wide subscriber base.

Any shutting down or blocking of access to the internet constitutes a direct interference with not only the right to freedom of expression, but also freedom of association and assembly, and access to information. All of which saves lives amid Covid-19.

When we knock on MTN’s door the company closes the curtains and turns out the lights. This is bad for business. Engaging with communities and civil society enables companies to efficiently prevent harms to human rights that arise from their business practice, and maximise benefits to even the most marginalised and vulnerable communities. However, despite numerous civil society organisations’ attempts to engage with the tech giant on human rights issues, these engagements have often received no response or acknowledgment.

This change in leadership at MTN is an exciting opportunity to improve the company’s commitment to protecting the digital rights of its customers, ultimately boosting transparency and accountability of business practices. Transparency will ensure trust as the company demonstrates respect for users’ rights, while investor confidence would also grow as investors often rely on disclosures to verify good business practices. As the dominant service provider in Africa, MTN can clean up its business practices and drastically advance digital rights continent-wide.

Civil society, internet users and investors are sick of power hungry, agenda-driven internet providers. MTN is not the worst, but across a cloudy internet landscape smeared with corruption and backdoor dealings the company has the opportunity to be the most transparent and accountable.

Access Now, Article 19 and partners have raised concerns and offered open collaboration with Mupita. We’re knocking on his door. Let’s engage, and set Africa on a new path of transparent, human rights-centric telecommunications.

• Taye is Africa policy manager at Access Now.

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