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Experts weigh costs as FG plans to unban Twitter

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[FILES] Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, speaks during an interview on Nigeria’s suspension of Twitter in Abuja, Nigeria, on June 9, 2021. – Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed told AFP Twitter had sought talks with the government, which last week suspended the platform’s operations in the country, saying it was used for activities threatening the country’s stability.<br />The Twitter ban on June 4, 2021, has provoked an outcry from the United Nations, foreign governments, and rights groups who are concerned about the repression of media freedoms. (Photo by Kola Sulaimon / AFP)

Platform targets 2022 to open a local office
• FDIs, MSMEs, governments badly impacted as losses hit N169b 69 days after
• Experts want investments in indigenous messaging apps

The Federal Government has hinted at a possible resolution to the suspension of micro-blogging platform, Twitter in Nigeria. Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, disclosed this while briefing newsmen at the end of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting presided over by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo at the State House, Abuja, yesterday.

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While the ban has entered its 69th day in the country, the FG disclosed that the plan to lift the suspension was based on some of the agreements reached in most areas of contention with the platform. Despite the ban, many Nigerians still have access to the site using virtual private networks (VPN). “We have made tremendous progress. The end for an amicable solution is in sight,” the government said.

Reactions have trailed the move by FG to lift the ban on Twitter. Some stakeholders in the technology space, who spoke with The Guardian, said the ban ought not to have been in the first place.
  
The Chairman, Mobile Software Solution, Nigeria, Chris Uwaje, said the new development goes a long way to validate the position that the initial decision of the FG was a very hasty one, with limited or zero impact analysis by professionals.

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Uwaje, a former president of the Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria (ISPON), said the fact is, Twitter can hold on longer than the government without being stampeded into a resolution.
  
With the ban entering its 69th day, bringing with it a loss of about N169 billion to the economy (going by a daily loss of N2.46 billion, according to NetBlocks estimate), Uwaje said: “With no concrete impact data yet, various estimates, however, points to colossal disruption of SMEs’ business model and loss of revenue. This scenario affects education, financials, agriculture, food and commodities, employment, tourism, hospitality and entertainment sectors of the economy.”

A survey by Top10VPN estimates that the ban has affected around 104.4 million internet users in the country, using a tool developed by internet governance watchdog organisation, Netblocks, and Internet Society, a U.S. advocacy nonprofit. 

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So far in 2021, only Myanmar and India have had worse financial losses than Nigeria from an internet shutdown of some form, according to Top10VPN survey. Uganda, which disrupted Internet access in January for a controversial presidential election, is in fourth place, with its shutdown costing around $51.5 million.

Since 2019, 234 major Internet shutdowns across 43 countries have cost the world economy $15.5 billion, according to Top10VPN’s tracker. In the case of a social media shutdown, active users can use VPNs to bypass the firewall but there are costs, too. For one, individuals using free VPN versions are vulnerable to data theft and other invasions of privacy.
   
On the possibility that Nigerians have moved on to other social media platforms, Uwaje said moving to other platforms should not be the current concern, “rather, it should be setting up a National IT Platform Think Tank to conduct research and provide innovative solutions for national, Africa-Wide Messaging System.”  

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From his perspective, the Nigerian Coordinator, Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), Olusola Teniola, said when the ban is lifted, it will be a relief to all those businesses that have been negatively impacted as well as government agencies and workers both at the Federal, state and local government levels that have relied on Twitter as a platform for immediate information dissemination and engaging with their networks to perform their civic duties in a seamless manner.
  
Teniola, a former President of, Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), said losses to the MSMEs are very hard to quantify, however, lost opportunities in FDI coming to the country and impact to the digital economy may still be felt till the end of 2021.
  
According to him, most political issues are discussed and debated on Twitter, and “as the country prepares for the next round of campaigns in 2022, plans to adopt digital channels such as Twitter will need to be reviewed and this will impact jobs in the digital marketing space. However, it is more than likely that an uptick in advertising and awareness will appear in Q1 of 2022.”
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He said Twitter like other platforms will have to compete for the consumers’ eyeballs and tighter pockets and this is evident in the financial numbers Twitter posted for its first half-year performance.
  
“By far, its biggest market in the U.S., and it will be seeking other potential emerging growth markets such as India and Nigeria after Japan. Competition for the consumers’ eyeball and wallet will be intense as this ban period has opened up alternatives to Twitter to those consumers,” he stressed.

Nigeria’s shutdown of Twitter, which came into effect on June 5, has become a huge economic headache for the country, impacting businesses of all sizes, from banks to startups, who use social media for activities like customer service and dispute resolution. The ban has also hit entrepreneurs and vendors who are able to gain visibility through social media campaigns and viral tweets, and the content creators, and marketers who have built a career out of running those campaigns.

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According to Brookings Institution, the ban has damaged Nigeria’s image on the world stage, as key diplomatic and economic allies like the European Union (EU) and the U.S. have condemned the ban at a time when the country “needs to foster inclusive dialogue and expression of opinions, as well as share vital information in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic,” as quoted by the U.S. embassy in Nigeria.

The global spotlight from the ban also highlights the government’s evident ineffectiveness in addressing serious economic, social, security, and political challenges.

The ban can also harm Nigeria’s growth as foreign investors pivot business and funding to other African countries, jeopardising Nigeria’s role as the unofficial tech hub of Africa. In a recent example, Twitter chose Ghana for its regional headquarters even though Ghana has a much smaller population and economy than Nigeria but was perceived to have an attractive environment for external investors.

Giving updates on the government’s negotiation with the site, the Minister of Information provided further insight into the conditions given to the platform, saying that most of them have been accepted.

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He added that areas still pending in the negotiations was Twitter setting up an office, a Twitter staff of management cadre that will serve as the country representative, among others were being discussed by the parties.

He said: “We have met virtually and have exchanged correspondence about three times. Really, apart from dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s, we are actually almost there. I don’t want to say that the engagement has been extremely positive, devoid of any acrimony.

“As a matter of fact, it is to the credit of Twitter that they admitted that they have never received any kind of informed or detailed communication from any country as they have received from us. Not only did they promise that they were going to look into it, but we made very clear what we wanted from Twitter.”

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The Minister revealed that in the area of a Nigerian office, even though Twitter has agreed to the condition, the micro-blogging platform is, however, maintaining that the earliest it can establish it is 2022.

“We also asked Twitter, in addition to registering the Nigerian company, must also register with relevant regulatory authorities like National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC), and National Broadcasting Commission (NBC).

“We asked that Twitter shall be mandated to retain designated local agents to manage its engagement with Federal Government operations in Nigeria. We also asked Twitter to commit itself to work with the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS). You know that if you make money from Nigeria, you pay taxes according to Nigerian laws. Of course, by paying VAT and other tax liabilities of any company resident in Nigeria.

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“We also proposed to Twitter that we should agree on a charter of online conduct for content management. So that this charter will guide both of us, we will agree on which content would be acceptable, what’s not acceptable, because we are very concerned about contents that are liable to jeopardise the security, unity, and safety of Nigeria. We also asked that we agree on what is publishable and when such is cited and brought to the attention of Twitter, Twitter to remove or delete such a publication,” the Minister added.
   
He expressed confidence that everything will be trashed with Twitter within a few days or weeks, noting the anxiety that has been shown by Nigerians. He further announced that the Federal Government’s committee negotiating with Twitter will meet on the agreement soon to make recommendations.

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