We Should All Be Digital Rights Advocates

It was a cold evening in Johannesburg. A few colleagues decided to go for dinner at a restaurant hosting a live band and a short talk. A short talk, before awesome food and amazing music, could hurt no one, we assumed. By the time we got to the restaurant, the short talk was on, so we believed it was only a matter of minutes before we settled down to the evening’s entertainment. We were wrong. The short talk dragged on, and became the night’s big lesson. She talked on and on about diseases and each PowerPoint slide that we assumed was the last disappointed us.

By the time the scientist was done with us, food was no longer interesting and the live band had lost their mojo. As we left the restaurant to book taxis in groups, someone voiced our joint disappointment. “That’s exactly how we sound when we talk about Digital Rights, guys,” another colleague said. He was right. Our passion for a subject we hold so dear keeps us from connecting with the people that need to hear about it the most. So, on behalf of everyone who has added to your lack of interest in the subject of Digital Rights — human rights in this age of phones, computers and other gadgets, — I apologise. As the scientist did to us at that dinner, we have bored you so much that even though we should all be demanding our rights in these complex times, you tune off at Digi…

We live in an age defined by digital. As at the end of 2018, 4.3 billion people were connected to the Internet. During the same period, there were 2.53 billion smartphones and 23.14 billion devices connected to the Internet. Life, work, play and every other interaction we have with the world, is subject to some form of digital tool, platform or solution. Unfortunately, this also means that those who seek to control our lives and participation in public – including political – life can easily focus their attention on keeping us disconnected from these digital opportunities. This is why demanding our rights in the digital age – our digital rights – is important. Beyond protecting our rights for the sake of asserting our humanity, there are also social, economic and other costs to violations. In many cases, money is wasted on equipment and other things by erring governments. As we have seen in many African countries, there are economic losses during clampdowns and lives are lost due to deliberate target of opposition or when citizens get disconnected from emergency services.

A telecommunications company’s SIM registration contractor sold off laptops that still had biometric information belonging to hundreds of Nigerians. A leading public hospital published sensitive information about patients that paid for HIV-related services online. Other data breaches featured airlines, banks, government agencies and more. No one is immune to the violation of rights in an environment that has no protection for citizens and some of these violations cost much more than discomfort. This is why you should care about your rights in the digital environment. From the child whose data is compromised for life to a relative that won’t come home tonight because of something he posted of social media, and the young woman whose innovation may never see the light of day because Internet services were disrupted while trying to submit her entry, the list of possible implications is endless.

A major reason we are seeing more rights violations across Africa is that as more people come online, their opportunity for democratic participation through this new town hall clashes with the ego and self-serving interests of some political leaders who are increasingly learning about the power of the Internet. Fortunately, many of them are beginning to see that the violations they allow today will come back to haunt them when they lose power. Nigerians will forever be reminded of a powerful National Security Adviser who lost his position and suddenly became a human rights activist. Human dignity is very connected to the respect of rights, and in this digital age, it is important to respect these rights. I have good and bad news. Let’s start with the bad: governments who are scared of digital rights will continue to enable violations by either not acting to stop it or perpetrating it themselves. The good: more citizens will get online and become aware of the opportunities for expression. Also, attempts to limit the digital civic space will yield less and less results.

Many years ago, a Nigerian dictator sent an Internet service pioneer to jail to stop the spread of information. Long after his death, he is being discussed online. When Uganda shut down the Internet, the information they tried to keep under wraps exploded because it is impossible to limit free speech in the age of circumvention and resilient networks. Unfortunately, Nigeria just suffered a setback in its digital rights journey because the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill was not signed by the President. If ever there was a time we needed to rise to defend a fundamental right that benefits everyone, it’s now. We should all be advocates of our rights in the digital age. While some may be frontline drafting laws, training, litigating and doing other things, we must all defend in our own little ways. We should all be digital rights advocates.

What every startup must know about tech policy in Nigeria

48 million naira is a decent sum. That was the price quoted for NigeriaAir.ng by a business-savvy Nigerian who registered it on July 18, 2018, a day after the national airline was unveiled. This followed the mistake by government handlers of Nigeria’s proposed national carrier that was expected to commence operations in December 2018, but is yet to take off. At the time, I tweeted that the registrant could face a jail term and/or pay a fine to show a legal blind spot.

Unfortunately, that blind spot remains today, and can be seen in the many reactions to regulatory bottlenecks that have reared their heads between July 2018 and now. Some laws may be unfair but laws remain the system of rules that guide behaviour, and anyone whose daily grind and intended success will be subjected to such rules must pay attention. The dust of the NigeriaAir.ng case has now settled but some real issues remain.

That it was a surprise for many people that a business-savvy individual could face such punishment based on provisions of the Nigeria’s cybercrimes law, points to a major problem. You can’t afford to be ignorant of the law in your domain of expertise, especially in a country where laws are mostly government revenue traps. Another challenge is the complete lack of interest in going beyond individual cases, such as the NigeriaAir.ng domain name debate and recent law affecting ride-hailing startups, to look at the importance of policy to startups. In this article, I share three major lessons every startup must learn about tech policy in Nigeria.

KnowledgeIgnorantia legis neminem excusat. Ignorance of law excuses no one. Startups must get familiar with the legal environment where they do business and intend to grow. If they don’t, they could force investors (who care about legal environments) to ignore them. Issues around tech and law must not be left until you are bigger and can afford a Government Relations Lead or Policy Wonk in Residence. Show interest, listen when experts discuss, seek counsel from people who can guide you, build expertise within your team and stay on top of this compliance aspect of your game. You don’t want to build the best product or service only to find out that you can’t make your launch date from behind bars. Yes, there are those of us whose job it is to work for a better environment — to make sure government either gets out of the way or works for innovation over clampdowns — but please don’t get into trouble while we are still fighting necessary battles.

Involvement: The only way to prevent bad laws is to make sure they don’t become laws. Working with others who have shown similar interest, you can make your opinion known about those potential laws while they are still under discussion. Write an opinion piece, attend a public hearing, support organisations working to stop bad bills, or just do anything within your legal rights to make sure that bad bill doesn’t get signed. For example, the notorious Anti-Social Media Bill died because people acted but our failure to stop Section 24 of Cybercrime Act 2015 from remaining vague has had repercussions including jail time, court cases or unfortunate clampdown affecting numerous journalists/bloggers. Paradigm Initiative and partners are still in court over the worrying provisions of the Cybercrime Act and though our case has been thrown out twice, we are preparing for what could be a final decision on the matter, at the Supreme Court. It should not be Paradigm Initiative or Enough is Enough Nigeria or Media Rights Agenda alone, we should all be involved.

Proactive Action: Knowledge and involvement are good but we must shape policy to avoid fire brigade responses to each incident. In fact, what I am saying is that we must all become policyshapers if we don’t want to end up with lame laws. After many years of fighting for digital rights because of vague laws and outright abuse of privilege, I drafted the Internet Freedom Declaration for Nigeria in 2013. With support from partners in civil society and a willing sponsor in the House of Representatives, that seemingly useless document morphed into the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill that was passed by the House of Representatives and Senate, and made it to the President’s table earlier this year. It wasn’t signed into law then but has now gone through first reading at the House of Representatives with the help of a new sponsor. If something worries you that much, take proactive action. Do something about that policy proposal now, before it becomes an impediment to your business growth. Or ecosystem survival.

The sexy side of things shouldn’t be the sole focus of startups. There are other issues like pipelines (capacity building) and policy that must get your attention if you are building something that will be here when many fads join others before them in historical archives. If there was ever a good time for tech startups to know more about tech policy, get involved and take proactive action, that time is now!