Cheta Nwanze, Lead Partner, SBM Intelligence

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  • Fiscal Policy
  • Geopolitical Analysis
  • Governance
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The internet is getting to a tipping point 13 Jul 2021

A year ago, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) seized 33 Iranian government-affiliated media websites, as well as three of those of the Iraqi group Kata’ib Hezbollah. The DOJ claimed the websites were hosted on US-owned domains in violation of sanctions and having not obtain license from Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control prior to utilizing the domain names. The 33 websites were held by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU), which is reportedly run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC).
Later in October 2020, the DOJ announced it had taken down nearly 100 websites linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which was erstwhile managed by Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in US airstrikes in Iraq in January of that year. The US said the sites, operating under the guise of genuine news outlets, were waging a “global disinformation campaign” to influence US policy and push Iranian propaganda around the world.

The US actions were arguably politically motivated, regardless of the guise of fighting disinformation. Since President Donald Trump pulled his country out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the so-called Iran nuclear deal, in 2018, the two countries have had some skirmishes. On the part of Iran, these included the seizure of oil tankers off the Gulf of Persia, attacks on Saudi oil facilities, strikes on American military facilities in Iraq by militias under the control of the al Quds, etc. The US assassination of Soleimani in a drone strike raised tensions to a feverish level.

The assault on the Iranian websites is likely to raise a spectre of measures against the use of the internet as we know it. When the internet was launched decades ago, there were arguments on splintering the centralised network into several “internets.” China has gone ahead to launch its own ‘internet’, separate from the centralised one controlled by the US.

But the Chinese example has intricacies as well as their implications around the world. The communist state has demonstrated capacity to shut down the internet at will as well as creating a firewall to prevent the circumvention of its protocols. A couple of smaller countries with governments that have authoritarian tendencies have on different occasions shut down the internet in their jurisdictions, banned some applications, criminalized the use of banned applications, and hounded citizens for using the internet and social media in ways that they didn’t like.

The gag actions of the DOJ is bound to open a Pandora’s box of its own. A direct retaliation against the US may have been through increased internet hacking and general cyber insecurity targeting the country and its interests or allies around the world. Yet, such state-sanctioned tactics could be exploited by criminal elements in the form of ransomware attacks, which have been on the upsurge.

Cybersecurity is a growing concern for governments and businesses. The immediate challenge cybersecurity risks pose is that of breach of data and interruption of business activities, sometimes costing businesses millions of dollars. Data from Statista indicates an increase in cyberattacks and data breaches in the United States. In 2020 alone, there were over 1,000 data breaches affecting over 155 million people. Yahoo’s 2013 data breach remains the largest to date. Last May, energy supplier, Colonial Gas, was taken offline in the US by a group of hackers who seized thousands of data and demanded about $5 million in ransom payment.

In a recent report published by the Centre for Strategy and International Studies (CSIS), there have been over 61 cyberattacks on government agencies, defence and high-tech companies, or economic crimes with losses of more than a million dollars each, from January 2021 till date. With this scenario, it is estimated that cybercrime is going to cost the world $10.5 trillion annually by 2025.

These incidents provide legitimacy for efforts at regulating the internet and the social media dominated by the US behemoth, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. However, some of the efforts have been instigated by intolerance of free speech and cyber activism.

The Iranian sites that were taken down by the US have been restored under different domain names. Nevertheless, a troubling precedent has been set by the self-styled leader of the free world. Other governments far more intolerant of free speech would have a reference point in using disinformation to disguise actions aimed at gagging the press online. The ongoing efforts at fighting “fake news” could lead to a spike in various gag orders against the media and free speech.

This raises a disturbing prospect in Nigeria where the government has been locked in a battle over the control of the civic space. The latest victim of this is Twitter, which the government banned indefinitely at the beginning of June. Before the Twitter ban, there had been a couple attempts to regulate social media through direct and indirect means, such as the Hate Speech Bill, amongst others. The banning of Twitter has been followed by measures to tightly control the social media, including by requiring them to be licenced and have offices in the country.

In 2018, the Nigerian Army justified its killing of rock-throwing Shi’ite protesters by sharing a clip of a speech made by President Trump. In that speech, he said that rocks would be considered firearms if thrown by migrants near the US border with Mexico. Sharing that clip of Trump’s speech on its verified Twitter handle, the Nigerian Army said: “Please Watch and Make Your Deductions.”

The bizarre affinity between Nigeria and Trump – who referred to Nigeria and other African countries as “shithole countries” and who privately insulted President Muhammadu Buhari as “lifeless” when he visited the White House – didn’t end there. Days after the Twitter ban in Nigeria, Trump released a statement praising the Nigerian government for the decision.

Around the same time, reports emerged that the government was in talks with China to build an internet firewall for the country. On the Al Jazeera documentary, Counting the Cost, the Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, did not deny the report when provided an opportunity to do so.

As part of further crackdown on the media, it would not be surprising to have a new regulation that requires Nigerian news media to move their contents to .ng top level domains. This would give the government the power to shut down such websites at will. The intent to act in this manner has already been signalled by the recent DDoS attack on Peoples Gazette’s website, allegedly instigated by the government. The Nigerian telecommunications companies have also shown a knack to implement government’s unconstitutional directives against the interests of their subscribers instead of challenging the legality of such directives. This would suggest that any probable resistance to a Nigerian digital autocracy would be ineffectual.

The US needs to be conscious of setting good examples as it avows to be the defender of the global value of free speech. President Joe Biden has been temperate and demonstrated intent to restore the global values exposed by the US. However, citizens need to not relent in fighting to preserve the civic space in their countries and pressing for respect for their fundamental human rights, including access to the internet.

Cheta Nwanze is Lead Partner at SBM Intelligence.