Opinion: Digital Rights & Freedom Bill – Laying the foundation for Nigeria’s digital future

by Hon. Chukwuemeka Ujam, Titi Akinsanmi, and ‘Gbenga Sesan

Something exciting is brewing in Nigeria. Just coming from a period that saw national outcry against the Frivolous Petitions Bill, popularly known as the “Anti-Social Media Bill”, and the arrest of another blogger, it offers great hope for the future of the country that a new and citizen-friendly bill, the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill (HB. 490) passed second reading in the Nigerian House of Representatives on Wednesday, June 22. As citizens found an avenue to freely express their opinion through online platforms and through digital tools, there was a trend of new legislative proposals that sought to check “excesses” but none to protect the rights of citizens online. This bill brings hope for a future where Nigerian citizens’ online rights and freedoms are protected by law. Hope, because in a period of dire economic challenges in Nigeria, this ground-breaking bill seeks to lay the foundation for Nigeria’s emerging digital economy.

With an Internet penetration rate of 46%, Nigeria has the largest number of Internet users in Africa, and the 7th largest in the world. Although the largest economy in Africa, Nigeria’s economy is largely monolithic with petroleum production accounting for the bulk of GDP. The recent rebasing of the economy however shows that hitherto neglected sectors of the economy are making a rebound, including Information and Communication Technologies – with heavy reliance on an Internet economy. However more investment is needed in Nigeria’s Internet economy to grow it to its full potential. We now know that Internet businesses are directly impacted when fundamental human rights are not protected in the online environment. As a case in point, millions of dollars accruing to Internet businesses and the economy was lost during the social media shutdown during the Ugandan Presidential elections of February 2016. The same could happen in Ghana if the threat by the police chief, to shut down social media, is carried out; and this applies to any country where government embraces shutdowns.

Thankfully, the United Nations Human Rights Council at its 32nd meeting adopted a new resolution condemning the shutdowns, intentional prevention or disruption of ‘access to or dissemination of information online, and considers it a violation of international human rights law’. Africa, with its severe economic and developmental challenges, cannot afford economic losses in any of its sectors – developed or nascent. The fundamental rights and freedoms codified in the Digital Rights and Freedom bill (including data privacy; right to anonymity; protection from surveillance; freedom of opinion, expression, information, assembly and association online), when enforced, could create the enabling environment which stimulates the inflow of needed FDI to develop Nigeria’s Internet economy.

Beyond the economics of digital rights, however, is the question of fundamental human rights and human dignity of Nigerians, which the bill seeks to protect. Although the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) outlines the fundamental rights of Nigerians in Sections 37 and 39 of Chapter Four, which grants privacy and freedom of expression respectively, the rapid growth of the Internet in Nigeria and various applications prompted the drafting of proposed legislation. Prior to this bill, the quality of legislation touching on Internet use in Nigeria has had ambiguous language, with the danger of being misinterpreted. In some instances, including the case of the Cybercrime Law of 2015, legislation enacted to protect citizens online has been used instead as political instruments to oppress citizens – freedom of expression and communications.

Increasingly, digital platforms and access influence our lives and work. From policy making that enjoys feedback from social media to business decisions made based on research conducted with the help of digital tools, to personal choices made by individuals because of information obtained from their social network, and even to the work of civil society actors that benefit from the huge reach and visibility that digital platforms provides, digital platforms have proved to be extremely useful, and we should not lose the right to access and/or use them — or the right to enjoy freedoms that exist offline, online.

Millions of Nigerians now live much of their lives online, and the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill ensures that the rights, freedoms and protections citizens are entitled to offline are replicated online. This thought, that “Rights are Rights, Online or Offline” was the theme of the Internet Freedom Forum hosted by Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN) in Abuja in March 2016, and further asserts the need for Nigeria not to continue on a path full of bills and laws that stifle innovation and limit freedoms. At Internet Freedom Forum 2016, as sponsor of the bill, Hon. Ujam promised to ensure that the bill is read twice on the floor of the House this year, and that promise has now been fulfilled. The Digital Rights and Freedom Bill is a very timely intervention in Nigeria’s digital economy and represents a bridge to Nigeria’s prosperous digital future.

– Honourable Chukwuemeka Ujam, PhD, is the sponsor of the Digital Rights and Freedom bill in the Nigerian House of Representatives, where he represents Nkanu East/West constituency of Enugu State.
– Titi Akinsanmi is Policy and Government Relations Lead at Google.
– ‘Gbenga Sesan is the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria.

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