By Theophilus Abbah
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, northern governors, and traditional rulers, some governors of southern states, and apologists of the Buhari administration have made social media regulation a sing-song after the recent EndSARS protests.
Though the government claims that social media was used to peddle fake news, the fact is that the authorities were shaken by the mass mobilization of youths across the country although the protesters did not seem to have high profile leadership.
With mobile phones, gadgets, and internet connectivity millions of Nigerian youths were gingered up and recruited into the mass movement. Due to its success, EndSARS agitation has been dubbed as an attempt to topple the Buhari administration. Now, the government is bent on regulating social media, or to put it succinctly, censor contents shared on the Internet in Nigeria.
Instead of harassing and indiscriminately arresting youths, the government should work hand-in-hand with social media companies to come up with the code of ethics to be adhered to on their platforms.
What does social media regulation mean and how is it done – in other climes?
Perhaps, it is good to look at the most extreme case in China, which Lai Mohammed alluded to when he appeared before the National Assembly last week. In China, the Internet monitor or regulator is the Cyberspace Administration of China. In carrying out its assignment, the body has hundreds of thousands of cyber-police who monitor social media platforms and politically sensitive screen messages. Such contents are reported to the regulators, and in many cases, keywords are automatically censored and taken down.
As the minister noted, Twitter, Google, and WhatsApp are blocked in China; there are Chinese versions in Weibo, Baidu, and WeChat. The Cyberspace Administration, in 2019 closed down 733 websites and 9,382 mobile apps. It is not clear if the government is thinking of modeling its censorship of the Internet after the Chinese, but that would be an extreme measure.
The opposition to the government’s aggressive moves to regulate social media stems from a suspicion that the authorities want to clamp down on voices of dissent
Perhaps, the second most strict Internet censorship happens in Russia. Its Roskomnadzor monitors the Internet and blocks websites without waiting for judicial pronouncements. Under the CyberCrime (Prevention and Protection) Act in Nigeria, websites or contents could be taken down by the authorities only after winning a court case to do so. But in Russia, websites with ‘offensive’ contents could be taken down by Roskomnadzor. Apart from this, media companies must install what is called Deep Packet Inspector (DPI) on their web. The facility is capable of identifying sources of traffic and filter contents. Also, the regulator could switch off the connection to the Internet “in an emergency” – determined by the government. There is even a 2015 law that says media companies must have a server in Russia where all data about Internet users in Russia are stored so that Russian information is not stored outside that country.
In several countries in the West, social media regulation is done through media companies. Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, and other platforms have had to pay fines for not taking down offensive contents within a specified period of time. In Germany, for instance, the NetzDG law, made in 2018, reviews complaints about contents, and social media companies are made to take down those considered illegal within 24 hours. In 2019, Facebook was made to pay €2 million for under-reporting illegal activities on its platform in Germany.
In the European Union generally, contents that have terror contents attract fines, if they are not removed within an hour. Also, the EU has laws that effectively protect copyright and personal data. Platforms that violate them pay heavy fines. In Australia, the Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act came into effect in 2019, which introduces criminal penalties for social media companies that allow violent content to be shared on their platforms. Social media companies are made to take down abusive and harassing content within a short space of time.
Social media companies take down offensive and harmful content regularly in what is termed self-governance. For instance, between April and June 2020, YouTube took down 11.4 million videos deemed to have violated its codes. Most of the materials were automatically removed by machines, and two-third of such contents did not receive a single view. Apart from machines, there are individuals, Non-Governmental Organisations, and government agencies who alert YouTube about contents that should be removed for not meeting ethical standards. On its part, Facebook has as many as 35,000 persons working around the world to ensure the safety and security of contents on the platform. On its part, Twitter has had to remove even tweets by US President Donald Trump considered to contain inaccurate facts.
As for a legal framework, Nigeria’s Cybercrime and Evidence Acts have sections that should take care of the common challenges of misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information on social media. Identity theft, forgery, cyberstalking, cybersquatting, racial and xenophobic contents on social media, and the like, attract fines or jail terms. The challenge before the government is to effectively and transparently invoke the provisions of the Cybercrime Act instead of angling for a new law to censor the Internet. Instead of harassing and indiscriminately arresting youths, the government should work hand-in-hand with social media companies to come up with the code of ethics to be adhered to on their platforms.
The opposition to the government’s aggressive moves to regulate social media stems from a suspicion that the authorities want to clamp down on voices of dissent. In every democracy, the viewpoints of the people should not be stifled, even if they are not palatable. Democracy is about freedom of speech, thoughts, opinions, and beliefs. If the government intends to regulate how Nigerians react on social media to government decisions and policies, it will be unfortunate.