Two bills were introduced at the Upper Chamber of National Assembly (Nigeria) in 2019 relating to freedom of expression online, including one which proposes the death penalty for ‘hate speech.’
“The other problem we have with that Bill is social harassment. Last year, some of our members were harassed. They cannot go on the road with the laptops again” – Prof. Adesina
These bills – National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech bill and the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation and other Related Offences bill – supported by the Nigerian government, represent an alarming escalation in the authorities’ attempts to censor and punish social media users for freely expressing their opinions, analysts have said.
Although the ‘Hate Speech Bill’ has been ‘suppressed’ following the criticisms that greeted it, it seems not dead, as the spirit still hovers around the ‘Social Media Bill’.
These Bills were presented at the floor of the Senate even at a time the existing Cyber Crimes Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act, which already cover many of the offenses the new bills seek to address, have not been fully implemented.
Some have even argued that the Cyber Crimes Act should be reviewed to address the harsh sides of it.
Nevertheless, the Nigeria Computer Society (NCS) has raised a concern that the Social Media Bill, which is still being considered at the Senate, may serve as an instrument to still innovation in the country.
Speaking to journalists at NCS Secretariat in Lagos State recently, the President, Prof. Adesina Sodiya, argued that the Bill will even empower law enforcement agents to engage in social harassment.
Hear him: “There are two bills that they’ve started discussing. Those are the ‘Hate Speech’ and the ‘Social Media Bill’. Discussions have been ongoing in the National Assembly. The Social Media Bill has passed the first reading at the National Assembly. Technically, the Hate Speech Bill has been withdrawn. The Social Media Bill is a good bill to eliminate harassment, fake news or illegal news online.
“But we want to look at it from the perspective as it affects IT services, the deployment and use of IT services. One thing that is common that we do in IT is that, when you design a product (hardware or software), you want to get the feelings of people. That is why when you design anything in IT, you do online analysis to get feedback. Some of our people have asked if it will be possible to clearly differentiate hate speech and online criticism.
“Hate speech bothers a lot about perception. For instance, if I design a product in IT and I want people to contribute, there is nothing you do at the time that is the best. Innovations and creativity in IT are based on comments from external people. Whether they are bad comments or good comments.
“We are looking at the situation where Hate Speech Bill will not affect the kind of responses that will get in order to improve or enhance our creativity. And that is why NCS has said that this Social Media Bill will stifle innovation in a way and also increase social harassment.
“If you design a product, and I want to comment on it, my comment can be seen as hate speech because I don’t like the face of the person that created it.
“But of course, those kind of comments are good for us (IT Professionals). Whether I like it or not, those comments will also assist me in coming up with a better system. It will also assist other researchers or inventors to come up with improved products.
Social Media Bill will lead to Social Harassment
“The other problem we have with that Bill is social harassment. Last year, some of our members were harassed. They cannot go on the road with laptops again. Many of them were arrested for carrying laptops because they were perceived to be ‘Yahoo’ guys. This has been on for a long time. It got to the extent where police officers will stop vehicles and be demanding to see their phones, which is totally illegal and unacceptable.
“With this proposed Social Media Bill, it will increase social harassment. They will not only be checking your internet or your social media. Of course, we know some of our security agencies, are out to make money from whoever they apprehend.
“To reduce social harassment, NCS is proposing that for now, we need to get to a level where we can fully regulate our online communication.
“Regulating it now will give us setbacks because we are still getting more users and access to the internet, extending broadband access even to the villages. That is still our interest. We cannot be comparing ourselves to Singapore.
“The proposed social media bill was just copied verbatim from Singapore. What I’m saying is that the level Japan, China, Singapore has gotten to in terms of IT developments, we are not there yet.
“That’s why NCS is proposing that for now, we have not developed to that level where we can fully regulate online communication. Enforcement of that bill will increase harassment in this country.”