A bill which punishes online criminal activity with a jail sentence of seven years has been approved by senators in Nigeria.
The draft law, known as the Cybercrime Bill, had been debated and proposed in a variety of formats for a decade. At just 43 pages long, it's brief for its scope, as it seeks to create legal frameworks that bring Nigerian laws into line with international standards for prosecuting a variety of offences, from ATM card skimming and identity theft to possession of child pornography.
It has been heralded by Ike Ekweremadu, deput president of the Nigerian senate, as a "very important bill that not only seeks to fight corruption... but boost the image of the country within and outside".
Perceptions are important to Nigeria. While the country is associated with the infamous '419' email scam, poor legal protections around intellectual and physical property are often cited as critical problem areas for foreign investors.
In its latest Investment Climate Statement on the country, the US State Department said: "Much of Nigeria’s market potential remains unrealised because of significant impediments to investment that include... an inefficient property registration system, non-comprehensive intellectual property protections and enforcement... a slow and ineffective judicial system, unreliable dispute resolution mechanisms, insecurity, and pervasive corruption."
The Nigerian government also recently introduced smartcard ID documents, which double as both an identity paper and a digital wallet.
By punishing data theft and online fraud with seven years imprisonment, or a seven million Nigerian naira fine (approx $350,000), the government is hoping to send signals to overseas investors that it's on the case. The law increases the punishment to 14 years in prison for online crimes that result in physical harm, and life imprisonment for crimes that lead to death. Hacking attacks aimed at national infrastructure are punishable by at least 10 years.
According to Nigerian news website This Day Live, the law also criminalises internet cafe owners who knowingly allow their premises to be used for committing a crime.
The phrasing of the law, which aims to show the seriousness of the government's intention, has been hotly debated over the course of its passage through the legislature. Gbenga Sesan is the executive director of the Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, a social entreprise that focuses on creating jobs through online opportunities and internet freedom. He said activists have worked hard to remove clauses that might be used to suppress civil liberties.
"The version that has just been passed by the Senate has gone through a lot of changes,” Sesan explained. "And some of the most thorny issues around unfair punishment that could be used as political tools have been excluded."
Sesan added that the bill has yet to be passed by the House of Representatives and that new amendments may yet be added before it is signed into law by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.
"This is Nigeria," Sesan said. "Every possible loophole will be exploited by political office holders who wish to take advantage of the climate of impunity to use existing laws against perceived enemies in the opposition or active citizenship as has been seen in other countries... we will study to be sure that no new provisions have made their way in, that could hurt internet freedom."
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