Nigeria: Making a case for enduring Internet Freedom

Nigeria: Making a case for enduring Internet Freedom

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By Bankole Oluwafemi and ‘Gbenga Sesan

President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria: Nigeria was shown to be among  the  latest  set  of  countries  to  have  joined  the  league  of  36 nations  that  have  active  Finfisher  Command  and  Control servers.  Finfisher,  as  described  by  the  distributing company,  has  only  one  purpose  –  to  help  governments with  Information  Technology  intrusion  and  remote monitoring  solutions,  including  spying  on  the  private Internet activity of their citizens.
President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria: “The absence of data privacy and lawful interception laws raises issues of the possibility of grave abuse by trigger-happy officials still steeped in military-era thinking. While it could be argued that the Nigerian government is doing all of these against a backdrop of increasing security concerns, it is also important to avoid possible abuse, considering the context of Nigeria’s maturing democracy.”

National Security and Internet Freedom Internet  Freedom  is  at  risk  in  Nigeria,  and  there  is  a  need to understand the surrounding issues within the context of  citizen  rights  as  established  by  the  constitution  of  the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Since Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999, the state of  press  and  Internet  freedoms  in  the  country  has  swung  from  a  pendulum,  ranging  from  disinterest  to  sporadic clampdowns  on  press.  In  all  of  these,  the  Internet  was mostly  left  alone,  ostensibly  because  it  had  not  become  a major concern. Nigeria has been rated Partly Free over the last  two  years  in  the  annual  Freedom  On  The  Net  report, with  slight  improvement  in  2012,  compared  to  2011.

Fellow African countries, Kenya and South Africa, achieved the Free rating  in  2012.  Kenya  actually  crossed  from  Partly Free in 2011 to Free in the 2012 Freedom on the Net report.

The  rise  of  the  Internet  on  the  back  of  mobile  revolution has given voice to a new class of  Nigerian citizens  that are vocal  and  increasingly  interested  in  public  policy.  The overall  intention  was  to  engage  the  government,  and  it was only a matter of time before active citizen presence on social and  electronic  media  would  begin  to  have  real  life impact.

Starting  from  the  first  day,  2012  was  a  tipping  point  for Nigerian  citizen  engagement  of  public  policy,  a  trend  that has  strong  roots  in  social  media.  The  Occupy  Nigeria movement  of  January  2012,  for  instance,  started  out  as  a hashtag on Twitter that found its way offline in a matter of hours, and  eventually  became  a  massive  nationwide protest that would last two weeks.

The growing clamour of informed citizens who have taken to  the  Internet  to  demand  accountability  from  the government  has  finally  come  to  the  ears  of  the  country’s leaders. However,  recent  trends  suggest  that  in  response, the  Federal  Government  might  be  resorting  to  extreme measures  to  subvert  the  free  activity  of  Nigerian  citizens online.

On  July  26,  2012,  while  speaking  at  a  media  retreat, the President of the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, who  is  ranked  after  only  the  President  and  Vice  President, called  for  a  clampdown  on  the  use  of  social  media  in Nigeria.  The  House  of  Assembly  of  Oyo  State  in  South-West  Nigeria  also  made  a  similar  call,  following  rumours about the state governor’s wife. Bayelsa State, in Nigeria’s Niger  Delta  area,  embarked  on  a  campaign  to  ban rumours. 

finisher

“Nigeria was shown to be among the latest set of countries to have joined the league of 36 nations that have active Finfisher Command and Control servers. Finfisher, as described by the distributing company, has only one purpose – to help governments with Information Technology intrusion and remote monitoring solutions, including spying on the private Internet activity of their citizens”

In a related development, Nigeria was shown to be among  the  latest  set  of  countries  to  have  joined  the  league  of  36 nations  that  have  active  Finfisher  Command  and  Control servers.  Finfisher,  as  described  by  the  distributing company,  has  only  one  purpose  –  to  help  governments with  Information  Technology  intrusion  and  remote monitoring  solutions,  including  spying  on  the  private Internet activity of their citizens.

Recently,  the  Nigerian  Communications  Commission  also released  the  draft  Lawful  Interception  of  Communications Regulations. The  draft  has  been  met  with  stern  criticism from  civil  society  and  Nigerian  ICT  journalists  who  have also  described  it  as  an  attempt  to  retroactively  jury-rig  a regulatory  framework  around  surveillance  activity  via secondary  legislation, which  is  not  subject  to  the  scrutiny of the National Assembly.

The  problem  is  not  so much about  monitoring  as  much as it  is  about  such  surveillance  not  being  conducted  within within  pre-defined  legal  frameworks  that  are  fair  and reasonable  to  citizens,  even  when  done  in  the  name  of keeping same citizens safe from terrorism and other vices.

The  absence  of  data  privacy  and  lawful  interception  laws raises  issues  of  the  possibility  of  grave  abuse  by  trigger-happy officials still steeped in military-era thinking.

While  it  could  be  argued  that  the  Nigerian  government  is doing all of these against a backdrop of increasing security concerns,  it  is  also  important  to  avoid  possible  abuse, considering  the  context  of  Nigeria’s  maturing  democracy.

It  is  the  primary  responsibility  of  government  to  provide security,  but  with  it  comes  an  equally  important  duty  to ensure that the rights of its citizens are not trampled.

Scenarios and Causes for Concern

The long-term consequences of the Nigerian government’s current  course of  action  could  be severe and  far-reaching, and  it  is  possible  that  the  policymakers  do  not  fully comprehend  the  future  implications  of  granting  security operatives  unchecked  and  unlawful  powers  of  surveillance and access to private data.

Civil  society  organisations  and  journalists  that  already make  government  uncomfortable  would  be  the  first victims  of  the  resulting  Internet  gestapo.  After  them,  the increasingly  vocal  opposition,  citizens  who  wish  to  freely express  their  opinion,  and  any  perceived  “enemy”  of  the administration,  could  lose  their  fundamental  rights  in  the name  of  keeping  Nigeria  safe.  Such  a  society  cannot  be said to be free or democratic.

The  alternative,  and  preferred,  scenario would  involve  the Nigerian government reversing its current course of action.

This  would  be  consistent  with the  promise  of  government to improve the nation’s economy and quality of livelihoods by  encouraging  the  expansion  of  affordable  and  high-quality  broadband  services.  A  connected  citizenry  that enjoys  constitutionally  guaranteed  freedom  could  add better value through digital participation.

 

The Way Forward

Providing  security  for  its  citizens  is  the  government’s  duty and  prerogative,  but  protection  by  emasculation  defeats the  purpose. Internet  surveillance  within  clearly

established legal boundaries, that respect the fundamental privacy  rights  of  Nigerians,  is  not  abhorrent  by itself. However,  a  balance  has  to  be  found  between  that duty  to  protect  and  a  responsibility  to  ensure  that fundamental  rights  are  upheld.

Nigeria  must  put appropriate laws and checks in place first. That is the least any  government  owes  citizens  whose  rights  it  swore  to protect.

Upon  this  premise,  the  advised  course  of  action  for  the government  would be  to  work  toward the passing of Data Privacy and Lawful Interception laws that:

1. Prescribe  the  fundamental  privacy  rights  of  citizens and define the legal framework around surveillance.

2. Accord  data  privacy  more  priority  than  it  currently  has now. This is all the more urgent considering the numerous government  and  private  institutions  that  hold  sensitive citizen  data.  These  include  the  National  Identity Management Commission, Independent National Electoral Commission,  Nigerian  Communications  Commission, Federal  Inland  Revenue  Service,  Nigerian  Immigration Service, Federal Road Safety Corps and banks.

3. Clearly  outline  provisions  for  interception  in  pursuit  of a safer  country  without  sacrificing  the freedom  of  citizens or  their  constitutional  right  to  communicate  freely, including on the Internet.  

4. Provide  sufficient  safeguards  against  abuse  and opportunities for redress where infringement occurs.

In  addition,  it  is  in  the  interest  of  all  concerned  that  the Internet  surveillance  and  monitoring  contract  be  annulled.

The  citizenry  must  also  be  sensitised,  by  relevant institutions,  about  the  (direct  and  indirect)  implications  of unchecked  government  access  to  the  private  data  of citizens. Enduring  Internet  Freedom  is  in  Nigeria’s  best interest.             

 

(May 29, 2013)

  

 

 

 

 

 

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