Discordant Tunes over FG’s Deliberate Regulation of Social Media
Public reactions to the planned presentation of the draft code of practice by the federal government seeking to regulate the social media in Nigeria were spontaneous and divergent. Emma Okonji, in this report captures the views of industry stakeholders
The federal government last week reawakened the consciousness and reactions of Nigerians over its planned social media regulation when it revealed plans to make a public presentation of a draft code of practice that seeks to regulate social media.
The government, through the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), said it developed a draft code of practice that would regulate the practice of interactive computer service operations, which include online activities across all social media platforms.
According to a statement from the federal government, “The National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), in line with the directive of President Muhammadu Buhari to develop a Code of Practice for Interactive Computer Service Platforms/Internet Intermediaries (Online Platforms), in collaboration with relevant regulatory agencies and stakeholders, is set to make a public presentation of the draft Code of Practice for Interactive Computer Service Platforms/Internet Intermediaries for further review and input.”
Worried about the implications it will have on social media, some Nigerians are of the view that the plan could stifle social media interactions in Nigeria if the government has an ulterior motive, while others are of the view that regulating the social media, will bring sanity and orderliness in the kind of posts that people broadcast on social media.
The Draft Code of Practice
The Code of Practice, according to NITDA, would aim at protecting the fundamental human rights of Nigerians and non-Nigerians living in the country as well as define guidelines for interacting in the digital ecosystem. This is in line with international best practices as obtainable in democratic nations such as the United State of America, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the United Nations.
The Code of Practice was developed in collaboration with the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), as well as input from Interactive Computer Service Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Google, Tik Tok amongst others. Other relevant stakeholders with peculiar knowledge were consulted such as Civil Society Organizations and expert groups.
Giving details of the draft Code of Practice, the Director-General of NITDA, Inuwa Kashifu Abdullahi, said: “The new global reality is that the activities conducted on these online platforms wield enormous influence over our society, social interaction, and economic choices . Hence, the Code of Practice is an intervention to recalibrate the relationship of Online Platforms with Nigerians to maximize mutual benefits for our nation, while promoting a sustainable digital economy.
“Additionally, the Code of Practice sets out procedures to safeguard the security and welfare of Nigerians while interacting on these platforms. It aims to demand accountability from online platforms regarding unlawful and harmful content on their platforms. Furthermore, it establishes a robust framework for collaborative efforts to protect Nigerians against online harms, such as hate speech, cyber-bullying, as well as disinformation and/or misinformation.”
To ensure compliance with the Code of Practice, NITDA has called on all Interactive Computer Service Platforms/Internet Intermediaries operating in Nigeria to take a deeper look at the draft Code of Practice to ensure compliance.
Speaking on the legal implications of the planned regulation of social media in Nigeria, a telecoms lawyer, Jiti Ogunye, told THISDAY that such regulation could be constitutional or unconstitutional, depending on what the regulation seeks to address.
According to him, “Regulation could be in a domestic setting, social, economic, political, formal or informal. Regulation is not negative by character or nature. The media, the world over is regulated. For the mainstream media, the practice has always been regulated the world over. They have to be registered according to the laws of the country, and the activities and content are regulated to avoid defamation of character.”
He, therefore, said if the mainstream media could be regulated, then social media, which is an extension of the mainstream media, should be regulated as well. He gave instances where in the United States, its former President, Donald Trump, had his Twitter account suspended because of posts that were at variance with the rules and regulations guiding Twitter operations in the US.
He said self-regulation is constitutional if it is sufficient in all circumstances, but argued that self-regulation may be subjective, depending on the platform, since platforms differ in mode of operations, but stressed the need for uniform regulation across certain social media platforms .
Ogunye further said there should be a distinction between regulating the content of the media platform itself and regulating the media platform as a business.
“If a media platform that is registered in Nigeria and operating in Nigeria and paying taxes in Nigeria, decides to extend the media platform to the US or the UK, the owners must also register the same media platform in the US or UK. The same applies to foreign media platforms that are already established in foreign countries that decide to operate in Nigeria. Such foreign media platforms must register the business in Nigeria for it to operate freely. The reason is that they are in business to make money and as such, must be registered and regulated. So there is nothing wrong with regulating the business aspect since it was established to generate revenue and people buy data to patronize the business,” Ogunye said.
Discussing the implications of any regulation that has an ulterior motive, Ogunye said it would be unconstitutional if the planned regulation of social media by the federal government, has some forms of coverup, intended to stifle the social media in Nigeria. He said if the motive of the government was a fallout of the altercation it had with Twitter last year that led to the suspension of Twitter’s operations in Nigeria, then it would be unconstitutional and could be challenged if the Code of Practice infringes on people’s right to freedom of expression. He said it would be out of place if the Code of Practice should operate like the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) sanctions the media at will and enforces certain rules that prohibit the media from carrying out its duties.
“If the motive of the Code of Practice is to deprive the social media of its right to freedom of expression, then it will not be acceptable and Nigerians have the responsibility to debate on the draft Code of Practice and spell out what their rights to freedom of expression should be, but if the government insists on the Code of Practice, against the wishes of Nigerians, then Nigerians have the right to challenge the government in court, to have it reviewed and nullified. The right to freedom of expression is a fundamental right in Nigeria and it is jealousy guarded by the court in Nigeria.
The Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, while reacting to the planned public presentation of the draft Code of Practice, told THISDAY that although he was yet to see a copy of the draft Code of Practice, it would not be out of place for government to regulate the social media, considering the behavior of most people on social media.
“I do not know the kind of obligation that government can put on the social media platform that will be able to guide the behavior of the social media content users. So the best way to control the behavior of content users is by regulation, but if the obligations are preemptive of the behavior of the subscribers, then it will be a challenge,” Adebayo said.
Comparing the operations of social media in Nigeria with that of other regions of the world, Adebayo said in developed countries of the world, there are levels of digital identity, such that people could be traced through any social media platform that they belong to, but explained that in Nigeria, digital identity is a challenge, hence regulation in Nigeria could help address certain online issues.
President, National Association of Telecom Subscribers (NATCOMS), Chief Deolu Ogunbanjo, who also supported the regulation of the social media in Nigeria, said the plan to regulate the social media by the federal government through a Code of Practice, is a welcome development.
“Twitter has a regional office in Ghana, but it has more followers from Nigeria, yet it has no regional office in Nigeria and its operations are not being regulated in Nigeria, although it is into serious business of generating money from Nigeria. It is, therefore, appropriate to regulate its operations in Nigeria, because it is in business in Nigeria and making money from Nigeria,” Ogunbanjo said.
Since Twitter makes money from Nigeria, it is proper for Nigeria to have some economic gains from Twitter also because the business resides in Nigeria, Ogunbanjo further said.
Ogunbanjo however warned that the draft Code of Practice must allow for some level of freedom of expression because Twitter is a global platform with a global presence, whose operations must not be stifled in Nigeria. He however said freedom of expression is guaranteed in the Nigerian Constitution, which people could use to defend themselves at any point in time.
With the different reactions emanating as a result of the planned public presentation of the draft Code of Practice for the regulation of the social media platforms, the government must tread with caution to allow for freedom of expression on all social media platforms, while still having some forms of control that will bring sanity across all social media platforms.