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Weaponising cybersecurity and cybercrime legislations in an election season

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The saying goes that ‘elections are not won on the social media timeline.’ However, there is a legitimate concern among political stakeholders on the power the new media seems to wield in shaping critical narratives that determine the outcome of an election. In recent months, across the country, there have been multiple high level conversations around ‘hate speech’ and ‘fake news.’ While concerns around national security and the spread of fake are usual justifications often cited for digital rights violations such as censorship and arrests for comments made online, it is a known fact that similar violations during elections are often in direct response to protests (or attempts to organize one) or exposure of irregularities during elections.

Africa has a notorious history of wanton digital rights violations during elections. Countries like Algeria, Gabon, the Gambia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea and Ethiopia, have all shut down the internet during elections. Other governments have also used methods such as the prohibition of International calls or switching off television networks during elections to control the flow of information. In 2017 January, the state telecommunications authority in Zimbabwe introduced an increase in data prices in order to limit the number of users with internet access in response to the barrage of dissenting voices online towards the election season.

Since the Arab spring in 2011, many governments in Africa and other authoritarian regimes all over the world have become quite afraid of new media. They have also grown more sinister in their response to online dissent, moving away from more extreme measures like the outright shutdown of the internet to using legislation to silence dissenting voices online. Most of these attempts often surface as part of a cybercrime or cybersecurity legislation.

One would think that in the wake of the sweeping evil menace of cybercrime (popularly) known as ‘419’, African countries would be a focus on legislation to protect users, their human rights and privacy. AccessNow, a digital rights group that has tracked proposed cyber and data protection laws in Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritania, Morocco, Tanzania, Tunisia and Uganda, has observed that in each case, the legislation would either fail to provide basic protection for user data, or allow the government to violate the rights of privacy, expression, and assembly.

A recent cyber-security law signed by President of Egypt allows the state to block websites it deems pose threats to national security or the economy. Administrators and visitors to these sites may face fines and jail times. Furthermore, social media users with more than 5000 followers will be placed under the supervision of Egypt’s media regulator, the Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media. The law was passed by Parliament in June 2018 and signed by the president last month.

In Nigeria, the Cybercrimes Act 2015 has a notorious reputation of being used to harass journalists and ordinary citizens. This includes the popular and more recent cases of arrest and detention of journalists like Samuel Ogundipe, James Abiri, Tim and Daniel Elombah. In addition to this are other reported cases of rich and powerful in Nigeria using the police to arrest and harass journalists, bloggers and ordinary citizens for comments made online deemed offensive to the powerful, the cybercrime law has been used as a prime tool for curbing freedom of expression online. As if this was not enough, a bill on hate speech was introduced in the National Assembly early this year, carrying a death penalty as punishment for hate speech online believed to be linked to the death of other persons.

Currently, it is believed that Africa hosts four of ten countries with the highest cybercrime levels in the world. Of course, there should be a focus to get cybercrime legislation right on the continent. However, legislation must be drafted to meet with human rights obligations. Cybercrime legislation should not target innovation, democracy and free expression of ideas as crime. If we want to get the issues around hate speech and fake news right, our cybersecurity and cybercrime laws need a multi-sectoral approach, which would include not only politicians but also cybersecurity experts, educators, researchers, civil society, vendors, and ethical hackers. This approach would ensure the emergence of a multi-dimensional framework to regulation, instead of churning out bills like the current ‘hate speech bill’ that is more akin to a decree.

I believe Nigeria has the opportunity to demonstrate that we can get it right; that we can hold free and fair elections, without resorting to digital rights violations online in the name of curbing hate speech or fake news. In addition to economic and political side effects that accompany digital rights violations, it does nothing to ensure fairness and peace. In fact, digital rights violations would only increase tension and insecurity.

• Tope Ogundipe is the Director of Programs for Paradigm Initiative, a social enterprise dedicated to deepening digital rights and inclusion in Africa. Comments and questions can be submitted to media@paradigmhq.org or via twitter @ParadigmHQ.


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