What is an Internet Intermediary?
Module 2: Introduction to Digital Rights
Internet intermediaries play an important role in protecting freedom of expression and access to information online. An internet intermediary is an entity which provides services that enable people to use the internet, falling into two categories: (i) conduits, which are technical providers of internet access or transmission services; and (ii) hosts, which are providers of content services, such as online platforms (e.g. websites), caching providers and storage services.(1)
Examples of internet intermediaries are:
- Network operators, such as MTN, Econet and Safaricom.
- Network infrastructure providers, such as Cisco, Huawei, Ericsson and Dark Fibre Africa.
- Internet access providers, such as Comcast, MWeb and AccessKenya.
- Internet service providers, such as Liquid Telecommunications South Africa, iBurst, Orange, and Vox Telecom.
- Social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
One of the most challenging questions relating to internet intermediaries is whether they constitute publishers in the traditional sense of the word. Is an Internet Service Provider (ISP) liable for the content it hosts on behalf of others? Increasingly, courts are finding that an ISP does not “publish” more than the supplier of newsprint, or the manufacturer of broadcasting equipment does. As pointed out by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression in 2011:
“Holding intermediaries liable for the content disseminated or created by their users severely undermines the enjoyment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, because it leads to self-protective and over-broad private censorship, often without transparency and the due process of the law.”(2)
On the other hand, the increasing power and influence of multinational technology companies has sparked calls for greater transparency and accountability over their internal operations and the decisions they make that have significant effects on the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and access to information around the world, such as decisions to remove specific content, ban particular users from their platforms, or to allow and promote political advertising.
Some countries in Africa have laws providing for the limitation of intermediary liability, such as Ghana and Uganda.(3) To protect themselves from liability even in cases where such legislation does not exist, intermediaries often develop terms and conditions that specify their responsibilities and those of their customers.(4) Other countries in Africa have laws that explicitly make intermediaries liable for their actions regarding content posted using their services.(5) The High Court of Tanzania ruled in 2017 in Jamii Media v The Attorney General of Tanzania and Another(6) that government requests for the disclosure of user information from an internet intermediary were justified, and that the law governing such disclosures was not unconstitutional, despite a lack of regulations to govern the enforcement of the Act.(7)
In addition, internet intermediaries are increasingly being used by states to police the internet through direct requests to take down content or interfere with internet access, decisions which are often made outside of formal legal and regulatory frameworks and which lack transparency and public scrutiny.(8) The Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, states in article 50 of the Framework Law No. 013/2002 on Telecommunications that the refusal to grant the request of the authority may lead to the temporary or definitive withdrawal of the operating license or to other penalties.(9)After protests against the government in Zimbabwe in early 2019, the head of a major telecommunications provider, Econet, was candid in explaining to customers that limitations in network access were a direct response to a directive from the Zimbabwean government.(10) This, clearly, has serious consequences for freedom of expression online.