The Senate is bracing up for a public hearing on a bill that seeks to curtail Nigerians’ freedom on social media.
The hearing is holding Monday, amidst outrage by Nigerians.
The bill, titled Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill, 2019, has come to be known as social media bill. It passed the second reading of the Senate in November, 2019.
Its sponsor, Sani Musa (APC, Niger), said that the bill aims to mitigate the threat of false information spread on the internet by monitoring online spaces and not to gag free speech as popular believed among Nigerians.
“It is rather an opportunity to address the growing threats which, if left unchecked, can cause serious damage to our polity and disrupt peaceful existence,” he said, last year.
With a total of 36 clauses, the bill prescribes up to N300,000 fine for an individual and up to N10 million for corporate organisations found guilty of spreading false content.
Many Nigerians have criticised the bill, saying it is a move to stifle voices and gag dissent in a country on the red patch of the 2019 World Press Freedom Index where it ranks 120th of the 180 worst countries for freedom of expression.
A recent report that indicated that attacks on the press have worsened under the Buhari administration.
Senators, who addressed dozens of protesters who marched to the National Assembly gate to ask the Senate to drop the bill last year, pledged that despite the bill being sponsored by their colleague, the Senate would do the bidding of Nigerians.
Arguments against the bill
The Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) has asked that the bill should not be passed, suggesting alternatives course of action to tackle internet falsehood.
The group, said in a correspondence sent to PREMIUM TIMES that considering the increasingly important role internet activity plays in determining citizen wellbeing, interventions to control such activity must be wholly justified.
CDD, in its latest release, made three cases on each of business, democratic and security fronts against the bill.
On business, the group argued that Nigeria needs to diversify its economy and “by stifling internet access for online businesses, access blocking orders can inadvertently work against this diversification.”
Citing an instance in 2017, when Cameroonian authorities repeatedly shut off access to the internet, the group said innovation hubs, education and healthcare services and money transfers, which rely on internet access, made a loss to the tune of more than $38 million.
On security, CDD said the bill does not provide for a standard of effective investigation in the determination of contraventions of its provisions. It argued that scant proofs coupled with subjective judgements are “recipes for abuse that could ultimately contravene freedom of speech.”
“This is worsened by an under-resourced and digital-apathetic police force,” it further wrote, “who are unlikely to use a publicly available methodology for selecting cases. Furthermore, targeted correction regulations go against data privacy norms in certain areas.”
Its case on security centred around Nigeria’s current insecurity challenge. It said access blocking orders could deter online intelligence gathering through both blocking internet access and possibly stimulating the development of an online information black market.
Again citing internet shutdown in Anglophone regions by Cameroonian authorities in 2018, it said the action resulted in many citizens “taking to these privacy tools to circumvent the shutdown.” The privacy tools, the group said, would further hide digital interactions and hinder security operations.
Alternative courses of action
As an alternative, CDD suggested that instead of focusing on producers of disinformation, the government should fund critical thinking and digital literacy training for both child and adult education, which should clearly address the biases that contribute to the demand for disinformation.
“Beyond national and state education ministries, the National Orientation Agency could seek to introduce awareness of and techniques to mitigate these biases into the national consciousness,” it wrote.
Also, it said because disinformation often feeds on popular engagement on social media, the government needs to step in to mandate technical provisions for algorithms such that they mitigate “gaming.” It said this can be done by developing fake-news-proofing platform algorithms.
To this, the group said “Nigeria needs to invest in its technical capacity to understand and contribute to 21st century technologies, because those who spread disinformation are already doing so.”
CDD also suggested accreditation for online content creators under their auspices. It said this should be done in collaboration with the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ).
It said without great modifications to NUJ’s existing extant processes for dealing with journalists, online content creators could benefit from training on the norms of ethical journalism and peer-driven sanctions for breaking those norms.