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Internet Way of Networking 21 February 2022

Nigeria Needs a Network That Works for Everyone

With social media-powered advocacy movements increasingly popping up worldwide, it’s no surprise that Nigeria’s 2019 “Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill” (a.k.a. Anti-Social Media Bill) drew international public outcry. 

The bill sought to criminalize the use of social media in peddling false or malicious information, allowing authorities to shut down parts of the Internet and limit access to social media for various reasons. Not only does this piece of proposed legislation challenge the technical functioning of the Internet Way of Networking, it poses a danger to the social and civil enablers of digital rights, justice, autonomy, accountability, and transparency, which help guarantee that the Internet remains a network that works for everyone.

The rise of social justice movements continues to punctuate media headlines across the world. Activists worldwide draw courage and inspiration from each other’s efforts, which helped hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and #EndSARS, among many others gain international attention, particularly over the past two years. These movements have united voices across geographical, cultural, political, racial, and religious lines to demand that social institutions do better to ensure equality and equity in the dispensation of justice, protection of rights, and provision of opportunities for everyone.

Social media’s power to catalyze momentum

Social media is one tool that stood out in the midst of these struggles. Its power to catalyze interest and momentum helped bring the global attention needed to spark progressive and meaningful change. Powered by an open and decentralized Internet, social media platforms became a rallying ground for voices of dissension against a status quo perpetuated by the political elite and ruling class. A status quo that was characterized by various forms of social injustices and government repression in these jurisdictions. 

However, in some countries these movements have underscored a growing interest and efforts by governments to clamp down on social media as a tool for free speech, independent thought, and responsible citizenship in the age of digitalization.

In some regions, governments have enacted and enforced regulations and legislation in attempt to centralize their ability to control the functions and operations of the Internet within their jurisdictions – and, by extension, other technological tools that rely on it. In treading this path, governments have frequently damned the more far-reaching consequences to the economy, citizen trust, and international reputation.

This trend has recently surfaced in countries like Mali, Nigeria, Uganda, Myanmar, Belarus, Hong Kong, Russia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Azerbaijan, Burkina Faso, and Ethiopia, to mention a few.

The problem with this centralized approach to regulation is that the Internet was designed to be a network that works for everyone. Its foundational principles help ensure that the utilities, rights, and opportunities it offers are equally and equitably available to anyone who wants them, regardless of geography, class, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or culture.

This effectively replicates the ideals that are expected of social institutions in the real world. Whereas, the benefits of social media for economic empowerment (through e-commerce), e-governance, and civic engagement were brought to the fore in the early weeks and months of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 – when Internet-enabled digital tools and platforms became the only lifeline for weathering the scourge of a rampaging plague on many fronts.

Working together to find solutions

It is easy to see why some governments might want to regulate the Internet and associated technologies. Nefarious activities such as misinformation, hate speech, frauds and scams, racism, radicalization and extremism, human trafficking and child pornography, grooming, harassment, and shaming, amongst others are serious concerns. However, the multi-stakeholder approach to finding solutions has proven to yield more effective and sustainable results in the long term than knee-jerk reactions or authoritarianism.

Unfortunately, Nigeria’s over seven-month Twitter ban in June 2021 was a grim foreshadow of what implementing the Anti-Social Media Bill would look like, and the dire consequences it could have not only on the economy, but also on citizen-government relations in a deteriorating socio-political climate.

In October 2021, I wrote about the economic impact of the ongoing ban, sharing thoughts on possible far-reaching consequences. Ironically, the lifting of the ban in January 2022 re-ignited public outrage and suspicion about the Anti-Social Media Bill. The government announced that Twitter had “agreed to meet all the conditions set by the FGN”, including “legal registration of operations, taxation, and managing prohibited publication in line with Nigerian laws…”. Many civil society stakeholders alleged that Twitter had sacrificed digital rights and civil liberties in its deal with the Nigerian government.

Following World Day of Social Justice 2022, the Internet Society, in collaboration with the #DearGovernments Organization, published an Internet Impact Brief which analyzes the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill 2019’s potential impact on the Internet, as well as on the social and civil enablers of sustainable democracy in the age of digitalization.

We believe this brief can support evidence-based multi-stakeholder engagements in Nigeria and beyond. It can also help other progressive governments realize that for the Internet to remain a network that works for everyone, they must understand their role in multi-stakeholder Internet governance as one of responsibility to everyone, rather than superiority against others. 

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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