Nigeria’s tortuous journey to social media regulation

Today, news, information, opinion and everything else travel without borders or filters on social media. Though social media has served as an unregulated tool for the public, it has also served as a means to spread information when other channels have failed.

In North Africa, protesters used Facebook to disseminate information to the world during the Arab Spring. In Nigeria, youths used Twitter to tell and document their protest against police brutality and bad governance in 2020.

They also relied on its strength to pull crowds to protest grounds and when they were shot at, they used it to report the government to the watching world.

Today, social media keeps governments on their toes. In 2021, Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition revealed that there were 182 Internet shutdowns across 34 countries.

Globally, governments are saying this must be curtailed. But civil societies and human rights organisations are bothered that this might just be an attempt by governments to regulate social media. With its power, however, it has also become a vehicle for misinformation.

Recently, the European Union agreed on the Digital Services Act, a law that would force Facebook, YouTube, and other internet services to combat misinformation, disclose how their services amplified divisive content, and stop targeting online ads based on a person’s ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

Code to regulate ICT

In June 2022, the National Information Technology Development Agency, a Federal Government agency with a mandate to develop, regulate and advise on iInformation technology, released a ‘Code of Practice for Interactive Computer Service Platforms/Internet Intermediaries.’

According to NITDA, the code of conduct was to set out best practices required of Interactive Computer Service Platforms/Internet Intermediaries, establish best practices that would make the digital ecosystem safer for Nigerians and non-Nigerians in Nigeria, set out measures to combat online harms such as disinformation and misinformation, adopt and apply a co-regulatory approach towards implementation and compliance.

In the draft document, the agency defined Interactive Computer Service Platforms as “any electronic medium or site where services are provided by means of a computer resource and on-demand and where users create, upload, share, disseminate, modify, or access information, including websites that provide reviews, gaming Platform, online sites for conducting commercial transactions.”

It said that Internet Intermediary included, but not limited to, “social media operators, websites, blogs, media sharing websites, online discussion forums, streaming Platform and other similar oriented intermediaries where services are either enabled or provided and transactions are conducted and where users can create, read, engage, upload, share, disseminate, modify, or access information.”

According to the draft document, large platforms like Twitter and Facebook would “on demand, furnish a user, or authorised government agency with information on: a) reason behind popular online content demand and the factor or figure behind the influence. b) why users get specific information on their timelines.”

While the agency lists plans to battle disinformation and misinformation in the document, Nigerians kicked against it because the Nigerian government and its relevant agencies had made the regulation one of their life’s work.

Nigerians called the code an attempt to regulate and monitor social media through the back door. In a statement, the Media Rights Agenda called it an attempt to tamper with the powers, functions, and authority of the National Assembly, and encroach on the constitutional rights of Nigerians.

The organisation said the draft document was a breach of Articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Nigeria’s treaty obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which gives everyone the right to freedom of expression.

The Nigerian government has been historically bold in its attempt to regulate social media. On June 4, 2021, the Federal Government of Nigeria banned Twitter after the social networking application deleted a post by the president, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.).

Although the government would say it banned Twitter because of “the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence,” observers knew it was because the firm deleted a post by the president a couple of days before. The ban would last 222 days.

Earlier in 2019, the Federal Government, through the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, had disclosed it was working to inject sanity into social media. According to him, no responsible government would watch and allow activities capable of setting the country on fire to continue unchecked.

“It has reached a level that the government may just no longer fold its arms and allow this to continue,” he added.

While defending the budget of his ministry before the House Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values in 2020, part of what the minister said was, “We launched the campaign to regulate social media, which was bitterly contested by the stakeholders.

“We kept saying that if we don’t regulate social media, it will destroy us. Social media and fake news will not destroy Nigeria.”

Mohammed is the government’s advocate for the need for social media regulation, but he is not alone. The National Assembly has been engaged in attempts to try to regulate social media. In 2015, the then Deputy Senate Leader, Ibn Na’Allah, sponsored a Frivolous Petitions Bill, 2015 (SB. 143). The bill sought to regulate the use of social media and short message service in the country.

In March 2018, the former Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate, Abdullahi Sabi, sponsored a bill seeking the prohibition of hate speech in the country, otherwise known as the Hate Speech Bill. The Senate withdrew the bill, then reintroduced it in 2019.

Also in 2019, Mohammed Musa sponsored a bill titled ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill 2019 (SB.132)’ in the Senate. He said the bill would help to curb fake news on the Internet.

He stated, “It is a legislation that will guide how we can tolerate our activities on social media. False information has been disseminated so many times and they have caused so much chaos in different parts of the world.”

Experts kick

It is because of such statements that Nigerians kicked against NITDA’s attempt.

“The code of conduct means that people won’t have the full rights to express themselves as they want to. This means that social media has been regulated. It means that the government has regulated it,” Paradigm Initiative Nigeria’s Program Manager, Tosin Abolaji, told our correspondent.

According to him, his organisation and other civil society organisations were suspicious of the code of conduct and had had a closed-door meeting with Twitter after its ban was lifted.  He disclosed that while Twitter was upfront with its dealing with the government, it made it clear that it was also a regulated institution.

Detailing the meeting, Abolaji said, “We had an enclosed meeting with Twitter. We needed to know the full outcome of the ban and how they (the Federal Government) agreed to call off the ban.

“Because there was news that said the Federal Government had given conditions before they could lift the ban, when we met with Twitter (i.e. PIN and other CSOs), Twitter made us understand there wasn’t any condition attached to the lifting of the ban.

“There were some political arrangements around this. This is kind of an internal thing, but Twitter wasn’t too open on how the conversation shaped out. What happened is that we didn’t even finish the conversation as Twitter wanted us to organise an open engagement where we would have the media and other stakeholders in order to better understand what the conversation was.

“They didn’t really disclose how their conversation in the government was shaped out, but we were able to deduce from their language that it was political. It is business for Twitter, so they are trying to protect their own business and not make it appear as if there were issues.

“They wanted to get back to business and not appear as stubborn. The engagement with Twitter is an ongoing one, we intend to get to its bottom.”

He explained that while some form of personal responsibility was needed on social media, it was a tall order to attempt to regulate how people expressed themselves. He noted that NITDA was acting as a lone ranger, trying to regulate social media all by itself.

He added, “On this recent development, the code of conduct, CSOs had to push back. I like how things played out. CSOs pushed back, people made suggestions, and NITDA had to go back to see what they could accept, what they could let go of, and all that.

“So, I think there should be more stakeholder engagement that could inform a lot of decisions, not just them taking unilateral decisions because there is a need for input from others too, to share knowledge and see the best way to go about things.”

An ICT expert and Senior Partner of e86 Limited, Olugbenga Odeyemi, agreed that while it was important to provide some sort of guideline for technology, the intentions behind NITDA’s move left little to be desired.

According to him, regulating social media shouldn’t be a priority for the government or any agency. He said, “In terms of priority, I honestly don’t think this should be among the top five things to focus on.

“I think this is coming up as a follow-up to all that happened between the Nigerian government and Twitter, and that’s not something to build on. I think we should move on from that. I think the first question to ask is how social media has benefited us as a nation.

“If the Nigerian government can honestly answer the question above, I think it will become very clear how to proceed. Especially in the area of job creation, the government must tread carefully, let’s not use a hammer to kill a fly.

“The negative actions of the government will hurt Nigerian citizens more than they will hurt technology companies.”

Odeyemi further said that the major positive was that the government was trying to get social media companies to pay taxes to it. However, he noted that it was troubling that the government wanted to be given the right to dictate what should stay on social media or not.

“The parts that I find unsettling are the parts that conditions social media companies to remove posts as defined by the Nigerian government. It seems there isn’t enough understanding of how social media works and the current efforts going on to introduce some levels of caution in other parts of the world, especially in the EU.

“I think those drafting these guides should study what the EU is doing, and how its policies and regulations are structured,” he added.

He further said it was necessary to provide some sort of guide or policy for technology as it was one of the ways to ensure the right efforts were going in the right places to maximise results.

According to the Guild of Corporate Online Publishers, the code was “toxic, undemocratic and a clear affront on free speech and civil liberties which the media promotes.”

It said, “We find this fresh move to gag the media both reprehensible and repugnant as it shows the desperation of the Federal Government to muzzle free press.

“We recall that the government had failed in the past in its desperation to enact anti-free press laws including ‘The Protection from Internet Falsehoods and Manipulation and Other Related Matters Bill, 2019, commonly known as Social Media Bill.’ ”

The association stated that NITDA was overreaching and should stop. There is a need to fight and curb disinformation and fake news that social media has enabled. Companies like Meta and Google are investing in efforts to curb misinformation, but every time the Nigerian government or its agencies try to float rules and guidelines for social media, they overreach.

It is what CSOs, individuals, and experts are most frightened of: That in regulating free speech, the government might altogether censor and gag it.

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