Government-owned mega network for South Africa — Amazon and Microsoft will not be blocked

The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies says it has received more than 17,000 submissions since extending the deadline for responses on its proposal to establish a mega state-owned cloud network.

This was revealed by communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams during her opening address on a virtual colloquium to discuss The National Data and Cloud Policy, which was published on 1 April for public comment.

The department says the policy seeks to strengthen the State’s capacity to deliver services to citizens, develop informed policies based on data analytics, and promote South Africa’s data sovereignty and data security.

Its main goal will be to consolidate the government’s disparate network assets and cloud computing capabilities.

The strategy includes the merging of the existing networks of Sentech and Broadband Infraco to create the State Digital Infrastructure Company (SDIC), which will have access to the excess capacity of government-funded ICT infrastructure.

This would cover the telecommunications networks of Eskom, SANRAL, Transnet, PRASA, and SANREN.

It is also proposed that a High-Performance Computing and Data Processing Centre (HPCDPC) should be established, which will include cloud computing capacity, to consolidate existing public-funded data centres.

The minister thanked those who have taken part in the public consultation process, which included stakeholders in the communications sector and other community interest groups.

Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams South African Minister of Communications, Telecommunications and Postal Services
Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams

The Minister said that the submissions from the public raised a few glaring issues in the policy, including:

  • The government is just trying to create another state-owned company by establishing the HPCDC.
  • The government does not have the capacity to run the HPCDC.
  • The HPCDC is an attempt to compete with the private sector to provide cloud services, which is not sustainable due to the limitations of the fiscus.
  • The centralisation of government data in one place (at the HPCDC) presents a data security threat.
  • Regarding the SDIC, the role of connecting government and government institutions should be played by the private sector.

In addition, concerns were raised about data security under the Open Data Strategy, which the department said were likely based on the misguided belief that all data would be open, which would not be the case.

Respondents were also critical of the impact of the Critical Information Infrastructure data policy in terms of data localisation and cross-border data flows, which could be an impediment to investment as most of the infrastructure could be unnecessarily classified under the definition, prohibiting the free flow of information.

“Under localisation, there is also concern about the obligation to keep a copy of the data transferred outside South African borders domestically,” the department said.

“The concern is that this could impose an unnecessary cost burden to many multinationals and might therefore also discourage investment.”

Respondents also argued against the need to push for a change in competition law, because there have not been clearly identified competition issues that could be of concern.

The minister noted that 90% of the input came from Dear South Africa.

She said with regards to these responses, the department wished that participants could provide further details about their concerns, instead of simply indicating that they did not trust the government with their data.

“It suffices to say that we do not intend, through this policy, to expropriate anyone’s data or spy on anyone,” the minister said.

The minister also said there was no intention to force the private sector to store their data in the HPCDC.

“We are clearly indicating that government data will be stored there, while we will strengthen and preserve the confidentiality and security of the stored data in a manner that will encourage other parties to store their data there,” Ndabeni-Abrahams said.

However, the department was unapologetic in insisting that Critical Information Infrastructure data, including all ICT systems, data systems, databases, and networks that are fundamental to the effective operation of the Republic be stored within the borders of South Africa.

She added that the government recognised the importance and availability of skills that existed outside State institutions, which is why the policy proposal includes the creation of a Data Advisory Council.

This will draw experts from government, the private sector and academia, among others, to contribute towards certain aspects of data governance, including the development of standards relating to the management of data.

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Government-owned mega network for South Africa — Amazon and Microsoft will not be blocked