The folly of social media regulation

 

By Abdul Mahmud

 

Internet freedom is here. Perhaps, it has been here with the internet for awhile as a gift of the genuis of invention, disrupting the holds of tyrants. Think about the internet as the gift of genuis. Think about the freedom it gifts humanity to connect to the “internet of things”, while shrinking geographical boundaries and revolutionalizing human relationships.

But, desirable as the internet is, the way it presents itself as a medium of expression makes it a fascination. That is, if you consider the way it gives effect to freedom of expression, you will appreciate how information, ideas and opinions are expressed, disseminated and received. Here, you imagine the power of freedom and make sense of the nightmares of tyrants everywhere.

However, there are downsides as well. This power and freedom of the internet is also mobilized by malevolent forces to influence and distort elections and disrupt democratic societies; it is also exercised by fraudsters, con artists, money launderers, paedophiles and prostitutes, to unleash nightmares of unimaginable proportion. Today, scarlet ladies post their photos on social media, with the message: “this is why your man keeps late at work”. Welcome to the age of internet freedom.

Despite the downsides, the internet still serves as a point of convergence to those fighting tyranny, disrupting authoritarian realities, raising the banner of resistance, and pushing the democratic frontiers for the enjoyment of freedom of expression, including the freedom to use the internet to advance democratic causes. The internet remains the virtual railroad that the train of freedom rides on. Like the historic Freedom Train which journeyed from Philadephia in 1947, crisscrossing and celebrating the American heritage, the cross-world train of the internet crisscrosses the globe, carrying dreams and hopes, disembarking at country-stations that welcome the power of freedom; waving from its carriages.

That power was manifest in the Arab Spring, which began in Tunis, following the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, and spread like wildfire through the social media and heralded the internet “as the driving force behind the swift spread of revolution throughout the world, as new protests appear in response to success stories shared from those taking place in other countries”. The result was the fall of President Ben Ali. To dodge the rising power of the streets, Arab theocracies and emirates embarked on cosmetic governance reforms.

The virtual train also crossed to other continents, disembarking in places rooted in power, resistance and the will to freedom. From Wall Street to Hong Kong, protesters demanded that meaning be given to the human condition. It is on the internet that photos of terror unleashed on protesters surfaced to mobilize solidarity and draw battlelines in the global struggle against repression. After all, ‘an injury to one is an injury to all.’

Tyrants abhor the power and freedom of expression. They fear citizens’ will to act, so they do all in their power to deny citizens’ the freedom of will. Regulation of the social media is the folly of tyrants. In sub-Saharan Africa, new legislation is being introduced to restrict citizens to the internet. In some countries, access to the internet has been commercialized, while in many others with dubious human rights records, the search for the harm and offence in hate and offensive speeches proceeds from the old philosophical approaches of the iron-curtain era that undermine the ramparts of constitutional democracy.

Where there are rights, there are duties. It is the duty of every responsible citizen to stay within the bound of law, judge the harm in a hate speech, without the government serving as the Praetorian Guard. Where cases of hate speeches are established, existing laws can be called upon to deal with the infraction. The practice of the courts hearing the state on the basis of citizen’s complaint has passed its usefulness as yet, for the government to throw the baby away because the bathwater is dirty. Regulating the internet ecosystem is simply an attempt to subvert the time-tested constitutional principle that underlines free speech.

Experience has shown that regulation comes both as a weapon in the weaponry of government to shut down the internet and as an instrument of censorship. Governments ought to err on the side of freedom. But, no, they don’t, as we have seen in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa that continue to issue threats of shut down, and there have been actual shutdowns, of the internet.

“In 2016, eleven of the fifty six global internet shutdowns happened in Africa. In 2017, there were instances of internet disruptions in nine different countries in the region, while at least eight countries were affected by service disruption in 2018. The shutdowns have become increasingly sophisticated, with governments targeting specific regions and communities” according to a report issued by the respected South Africa-based network, Association of Progressive Communications (APC).

Doubtless, regulation has become the shorthand of repression. In the rule book of the tyrant, regulation serves two purposes. First, it strengthens the tyrant’s grip on institutions already captured and personalized by him. Since the captured institutions are expected to take on his personal character, while under his exclusive control, doing his bidding, demeaning and abjuring their allegiance to the people become second nature. Max Weber was right about the public official “entrusted with specialized tasks” but who ends up being controlled “only from the very top”. Second, it promotes the culture of fear and silence and guides the repressive instrument that renders citizens powerless and citizenship meaningless.

Our government has also showed its hands.

Last week, Lai Mohammed, the Information Minister announced that the government had accepted “the review of fines to be paid by erring broadcasting stations from N500, 000, 00 to N5m for breaches of the National Broadcasting Code”. While press freedom is protected by Sections 22 and 39 of the Constitution, the so-called review coming from a government, notorious for hounding the opposition media, highlights the penchant for unconstitutionalism.

The power to impose fines is a judicial power preserved by Section 6(1) and 6 (6) (a) of the Constitution. If the proposed review is sinister, the ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill 2019’ proposed last week by the Senate is more sinister, going by the statement credited to the sponsor of the bill, Senator Musa: “if today, you can disseminate information of your president, taking a picture of the President and putting it in an invitation card, giving false information of your President… it is something we cannot see it as anyhow information”. Ignorance is weakness. That the Senator isn’t aware that “giving false information” is already covered by the Cybercrimes Act, 2015 is troubling. Regulation of the social media is an act of sheer folly that must be resisted.

 

Lai Mohammed, Information Minister of Nigeria

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