November 8, 2020

Social media regulation can affect digital economy, others – Ajijola

Following calls by some top government  officials and state governors for the regulation of social media, renowned cyber-security expert, Hakeem Ajijola, in this interview, cautions that such a move could breed more problems the Federal Government might have difficulties in resolving. He suggests alternatives to the proposed regulation of new media.

By Charles Kumolu, Deputy Editor

In the wake of# EndSARS protest, government is proposing to regulate social media. Northern governors even supported the calls a few days ago. As a cyber-security expert, what do you make of the development?

Those who have sought to regulate social media did not start with the #EndSARS phenomena.

We must appreciate that cyberspace has matured to the point where some level of regulation is desirable especially norms to avoid undue weaponization and international misunderstandings. The large technology companies in the social media space like Facebook and Google are arguably too powerful and stifle new potential competitors.

Also, these large firms have become de facto global censors because the institutions in government that censor public speech do not have the capacity and in some cases the know-how to do so. Religious censorship based on moral suasion is stretched beyond its limits. The censorship parameters of these large, often Southern California based, technology firms often do not align with our indigenous values, cultures, perspectives, and parameters.

The question that remains unanswered is if the political class seeks to impose social media regulations in the best interest of the society and its people or to protect the status quo and entrench malfeasance of the political establishment and associated elite.

Besides, can Nigeria afford to implement robust and extensive Social Media regulation? The Great Firewalls and restrictions of China, Russia and Iran are extremely expensive to set up and very expensive to maintain. Interestingly there are free tools that empower those who desire to bypass such measures to do so. History is replete with examples of “walls” like the Maginot Line which when built were believed to be impenetrable yet when the time came for action they were easily bypassed.

Nothing is “free.” Restrictions and over regulation in one area often inadvertently affect other areas. What will be the impact of too much or inappropriate regulation on our budding digital economy? Could it stunt the growth of Nigerian social media start-ups, those businesses that leverage social media to improve their communications and operations and derail the envisaged digital economy? Any heavy-handed legislation will have unwarranted repercussions and thus Nigerian politicians should seek a more moderated approach that has sanctions for extreme situations but ensures that human freedoms are respected.

Cyberspace and social media evolve very rapidly and legislation by nature cannot keep up. As Barry Raveendran Greene famously said, “Cyber-criminals operate at the speed of light while law enforcement moves at the speed of law.” The political class should endeavour to empower a regulator to take actions as needed and adjust as the technology adjusts rather than impose onerous and often inflexible legislation.

With your experience, would you say the usage of social media tools during the protests, in some ways, constituted any form of threat (whether cyber or not)?

The right to peacefully protest is foundational to the liberal democracy our society seeks to build. We must understand the immediate and remote reasons apparently peaceful protests turned violent. Arguably, this is wider than a social media issue, and I do not know if the violent thugs that disrupted peaceful protests, used social media to plan their activities.

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Certainly, the deft and creative deployment of social media tools demonstrated the difference between the digital natives and digital immigrants, and it is human nature to fear the unknown. As we saw recently during the Hong Kong protests, tools exist that enable protesters to bypass commercial networks and such tools are freely created and circulated on demand.

In some instances, this creativity can be considered a threat, especially to the status quo. Others may see the ingenuity and versatility of our youths to develop the tools they need to address problems as they perceive them. Can society harness and channel this creative energy into addressing the real problems that we all feel?

Could it have been possible for social media giants like Twitter and Facebook to censor some of the contents on their platforms during the protests?

They did and still censor us all.

The question is should they be the ones to censor us? Do their censorship rules align with our own societal values?

I suspect that in some cases they do not. However, unless we develop our own social media alternatives they will continue to influence our society at our expense. Will any proposed social media regulation encourage the development of alternative indigenous sustainable social media type ecosystems? It is conceivably possible to develop indigenous alternatives like Africa Magic, Iroko TV and Paystack have demonstrated. Legislation can be foundational to encouraging or discouraging digital-related developments.

If eventually there is a consensus on the regulation of social media, what steps do you think government can take without infringing on people’s right to free speech?

Adhering to the principles of freedom of speech with responsibility for such speech is imperative. If the underlying socio-economic challenges are properly addressed then such matters will not arise. Taking analgesics to address cancer-related headache does nothing to resolve cancer.

Since social media is sometimes abused through the dissemination of fake news, how best can the spread of fake news be checkmated by governments, social media giants and even app developers?

There is a need to comprehensively address fake news, hate speech and influence operations. This requires civic awareness, education that empowers citizens to ask questions, analyse responses and societal interactions that focus on social responsibility.

WhatsApp imposed limits on the number of people videos and pictures can be forwarded at a single instance. We must encourage the development of sustainable indigenous solutions ecosystems that address our needs from our perspective by us. Social media is but a tool, its use and abuse are reflective of us and our society. We are the ones to be improved upon.

In terms of fake news, do you think Twitter, Facebook and others have done much in preventing or curtailing its prevalence?

It’s difficult to say because their internal workings are opaque and very unclear. The foreign-based social media giants are not answerable to our society and we have no stake or control of them. Even their own governments are struggling to get answers from them. Given that they do not answer to us in Nigeria, it is even more difficult for us to get requisite insight. This justifies the development of our own options as enumerated earlier.

If government goes ahead to regulate social media, what are the likely implications for the country’s young demographic with a huge social media presence?

It depends on what is regulated and how well it is enforced. We know the challenges other government regulators face when endeavouring to carry out their assignments and a social media regulator (or regulation) will face the same set of basic issues.

The youths believe it is necessary to work around many possible regulations and move on with or without the status quo.

In the worst-case scenario, should the regulations be onerous, people will move “underground” to the dark web, which no nation has yet been able to regulate. If that happens then even the modest insight and control that we currently have is lost.

We must appreciate that cyberspace is not borderless. It is perceived as borderless because its borders are seamless to the end-user, including the bad actor. However, every country has its own cyberspace which is defined by its national infrastructure. The implications are that threat actors carry out their activities in an apparently seamless environment, while law enforcement operatives are constrained by issues of jurisdiction.

This means that if you block certain activities in one jurisdiction then the bad actors will use other means and jurisdictions to carry out their endeavours, thus the problem is not solved but temporarily moved. To tackle this we must solve the underlying problems, develop highly proactive law enforcement including legislation that gives more powers to regulators to take prompt if not proactive action as circumstances evolve and develop our own indigenous solutions ecosystem.

Many of those who seek to regulate social media do not know much about the technology and see simplistic solutions to very complex, expensive, systemic and multifaceted challenges. I urge reasonable caution and great thoughtfulness lest our society create monsters that will stifle and devour us all.