Last month, I had the honour of delivering the keynote address “Rights are rights, offline or online” at the Internet Freedom Forum in Abuja, an annual international gathering of global stakeholders, organized and hosted by Paradigm Initiative Nigeria.
Nigeria, like many of its neighbouring countries and much of the rest of world, finds itself at a crossroads, as more and more of its citizens come online and legislative frameworks that should protect citizens’ rights are struggling to keep up. Nigeria could become a front-runner in protecting online rights, but real threats, including the Cyber-crime Bill, endanger such positive prospects.
Those of us who already spend a lot of time online tend to overestimate the extent to which the same applies to everyone else around the world. About 40% of the world population currently has an internet connection, which means that the majority of the world’s citizens still accesses news and other information via so-called traditional media: radio, TV, print. It is estimated that by 2018 nearly half of the world’s population, or 3.6 billion people, will access the internet at least once per month. This underlines the importance of the choices we make at this stage: as the rest of the world moves online, it is crucial that a proper framework, guaranteeing fundamental human rights, is in place. Nigeria is faced with both threats and opportunities now that more of its citizens come online, but it can draw inspiration from some good examples – and cautionary signals – from other countries around the world.
The recently introduced Cybercrime Bill and Lawful Interception of Communications Regulation would lead Nigeria down the path of limiting the engagement of citizens online, including by curtailing the freedom of the platforms that make it possible to exchange information. This exchange, or free flow of information, is what lies at the heart of a properly functioning democracy: the ability to share and receive ideas so people can have an informed debate about issues that matter. As we have seen from examples such as the shooting of the African-American Walter Scott by a white police officer in the US, which was filmed and shared on social media by an accidental bystander, leading to widespread protest and eventually the prosecution of the police officer, citizens’ contribution to the free information flow can have an enormous impact on fundamental issues like the accountability of State institutions. It is therefore important that the online space remains an open platform.
Unfortunately, Nigeria would not be alone in shrinking this free space. The European Court of Human Rights recently handed down ill-advised decisions on the liability for user comments online, leaving news platforms and intermediaries in greater Europe with extensive self-censorship as the most appealing option, and Tanzania last year adopted its Cybercrime Act, effectively making it a criminal offence to not take down content at anyone’s request, regardless of the legitimacy of that request. There are however also more positive examples to draw on. Just last year, the Indian Supreme Court struck down a provision of India’s Information Technology Act that is virtually identical to Article 24(b) of Nigeria’s Cybercrime Bill (both appear to have been “inspired” by section 127 of the UK Communications Act of 2003), making it a criminal offence to send “annoying” messages. The Indian Supreme Court considered the provision to be in violation of the right to free speech. Which it is, just like the relevant provision of the Cybercrime Bill.
Besides these threats, there are excellent opportunities at hand in Nigeria. The Digital Rights and Freedom Bill, that seeks to empower citizens online by affirming their fundamental human rights, is a pioneering piece of legislation. In what could be the beginning of good things to come, the bill was read for the first time on the floor of the Nigerian House of Representatives on April 20. If adopted, Nigeria would join the likes of Brazil, which adopted a similar law in 2014, and become part of a group of front-runners when it comes to the protection of online rights. We can only hope that the Bill will be adopted into law soon, and that other countries, in the region and beyond, will follow suit, so that rights remain rights, both offline and online.