President Buhari was censored by Twitter after posting a controversial message on June 1. In response, Twitter was suspended in Nigeria. Twitter then claimed in a tweet on June 5 that access to a free and open internet was essential. The tweet did not specify who has the legitimacy to open the internet. Or to close it.
Amnesty International then denounced the suspension, considering that it violates freedom of expression and access to information. Although Amnesty is obviously right in a way, it is necessary to broaden the scope of the analysis of this problem. And to learn the history of the internets.
The issue of censorship or moderation of content published on the internet is anything but new. In the early 2000s, France experienced particularly heated debates between, on the one hand, the government and a number of lobbies trying to pass a law (LCEN) requiring ISPs (web hosting providers) to censor content instead of judges, and on the other hand, Internet users refusing that private actors can take the place of judges. This basically posed a threat to freedom of information and freedom of expression. To get an idea of the intensity of the debates at that time in France, you must know that French Internet users sent tens of millions (as in 10 x 10 ^ 6) of emails to members of the French parliament during two or three protest campaigns.
To the extent that a few MPs even proposed that an anti-spam law ban mailing campaigns targeting MPs. And then, they changed their minds, when they were told that banning citizens from writing to their MPs was a highly risky political operation.
In those days, the interests of Internet users and French ISPs converged. And in reality, Internet users' associations and AFA (the association of French ISPs) discreetly collaborated to fight together against the bill. Also, when at a crucial moment in the debates AFA threatened the government to shut down community services in France, Internet users' associations immediately let the government know that they supported this initiative.
In short, at that time, the government wanted to force ISPs to judge and censor, and ISPs opposed it. Today, in Nigeria, the opposite is true: Twitter, a US private corporation, claims to judge and censor the Nigerian president. And the Nigerian government retaliates by suspending Twitter. While this suspension causes a shock wave in the media, it at least has the merit of prompting the problem of the legitimacy of the powers of justice and censorship to be clearly posed. Or problems, because there are several to distinguish.
A first risk threatens access to justice: the right to an impartial trial is one of the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 10), and replacing the judge by a commercial entity does not respect this value. Basically, this is a significant axiological degeneracy.
A second risk is that this private censorship can spur violence: if African users can no longer express themselves with words, then this could encourage some to express themselves through arms. This risk is increased in a period when exogenous actors adopt positions which result in the legitimisation of the seizure of power by arms.
A third risk is strategic: by leaving the power to judge the opinions expressed to foreign corporations, in this case the United States, African countries in a way leave the control of their public opinions to foreign actors. It should be remembered that Edward Hallett Carr considered power over public opinion1 to be one of the main forms of state power. On the one hand, it would be a behaviourist posture to consider that the control of information flows enables a direct fabrication of opinions. But on the other hand it would be really naive to believe that it has no influence. In practice, businesses like Twitter or Facebook can now decide who can say what in an election campaign in Africa. Whether they can do it during a US campaign remains a US domestic issue. Yet when they think to have the legitimacy to do so in African countries, it becomes interference. And if you think about it, this is undoubtedly a blatant cybercolonialist stance.
CARR, Edward Hallett. The twenty years’ crisis, 1919-1939: an introduction to the study of international relations. London : Macmillan & co. ltd, 1946.