Digital rights have been at the center of many conversations in recent times, especially with the many cases of alleged violations and censorship, particularly the infamous Twitter ban in Nigeria. Majority insist that now more than ever we need the government to pass and sign the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill into law, to guarantee the rights of citizens in that regard. However, bearing in mind that the Nigerian government is notorious for alleged human rights violations without accountability, it is not surprising that it is hesitant to sign the Bill into law, while at the same time championing Bills that have been criticised for being repressive.
The proponents of the Bill suggest that digital rights are a new crop of rights birthed by the digital age and so new laws, policies and regulations are needed to guarantee their exercise and protection. Without delving into the substantive provisions of the Digital Rights Bill, the preamble states thus;
“An Act to provide for the protection of human rights online, to protect internet users in Nigeria from infringement of fundamental rights and freedom, and to guarantee application of human rights for users of digital platforms and/or digital media and for related matters, 2019”.
A comparative study of the Bill and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, reveals that the provisions of the Bill stem from Chapter IV of the constitution. Thus, there is no necessity for a new statute to guarantee rights that already exist and have been guaranteed by the Constitution.
Following the International Law principle that, where a right exists there is duty on the state to protect it, the Nigerian government has a binding duty to the citizens to protect their constitutional rights regardless of the platform where it is to be exercised. Human rights are not static but constantly evolving as the society comes in contact with new ideas and concepts. Today, the dawn of the digital age has brought about the evolution of the Constitutional rights to Privacy, Freedom of Expression and the Press, Association, Assembly, Freedom from Discrimination and the Right to Information into a bundle of Rights that can be classified as “Digital Rights’ ‘. This is not because these rights are new, but because the internet has presented a new platform for the exercise of these rights.
However, focusing on the clamour for the passing of the Bill deflects attention from the constitutional provisions for digital rights and their enforcement, and gives the government a leeway to continue ignoring and violating the rights of citizens on the internet while foot dragging to sign the Bill to law.
It is therefore advisable that attention and activism in this regard be geared towards legal advocacy and urging the judiciary to interpret the provisions of the constitution to reflect the realities of the digital age. The court of appeal took a step in this direction in Digital Rights Lawyers Initiative (DRLI) and National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), Appeal Number CA/IB/291/2020, where the court stated thus,
“But the meaning and scope of ‘privacy of citizens’ as guaranteed by the section has not received clear definition/interpretation in the constitution. The trial court had, in my view, rightly held that the right to ‘privacy of citizens’ as guaranteed under the section includes the right to protection of personal information and personal data.’
The learned trial judge in that case had held as follows,
“This right to privacy is not limited to his home but extends to anything that is private and personal to him including communication and personal data.”
More activism, sensitization and engagement in this regard will be a catalyst towards the promotion, protection and enforcement of digital rights without multiplicity of laws that the government has no intention to implement.