Nigerian government levies $5.2 billion fine, threatens anonymity online

This week the director of MTN Nigeria, a division of a leading cellular communications company in South Africa, resigned after the company was fined a record $5.2 billion by the Nigerian Communications Commission. The fine stemmed from MTN Nigeria’s decision to continue to provide mobile services for users with 5.1 million SIM cards that were not registered. The government’s argument is that unregistered cell phones allow the militant Islamic sect Boko Haram to communicate in secret, and also give criminals free rein to operate. But this is a misguided intervention.

Anonymity is important for human rights. As David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion, observed in his landmark report released earlier this year, privacy is a “gateway for freedom of opinion and expression.” Therefore, both encryption and anonymity “deserve strong protection” because they “enable individuals to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age.”

Nigeria’s requirement for SIM card registration denies anonymity to people who use mobile services, including MTN Nigeria’s services. This kind of overbearing regulation that is not grounded in sound public policy prevents businesses like MTN from meeting their responsibility to respect human rights. Based in South Africa, MTN provides mobile services across the world, mostly in developing markets. It has 62 million subscribers in Nigeria alone, and while its license has been renewed by the government, this heavy fine sets a worrying precedent for restricting privacy in Africa’s largest economy.

Even the GSMA, a leading telco industry association, has come out solidly against mandatory SIM registration (PDF). A GSMA White Paper in 2013 found no evidence that SIM registration led to reductions in crime. Rather, the study found that mandatory registration actually created a black market for fraudulently-registered or stolen SIM cards.

Access Now is in contact with MTN about this and other issues, and we recognize that the company still has much work to do. MTN received low marks from the Ranking Digital Rights project, a trusted corporate accountability index that we support. We have advocated for MTN to commit to supporting human rights at the highest levels within the corporation. It is listening, even if it has a long road ahead to meet its responsibility to uphold privacy and freedom of expression across its vast array of subsidiaries.

SIM card registration is not the only policy that could push Nigeria towards a surveillance state. Citizen Lab revealed earlier this year that the government may be using FinFisher technology to spy on its citizens. Although the government has couched its requirement for SIM card registration in anti-terrorist language, the exorbitant fine for MTN does not help promote human rights or corporate accountability.

image courtesy of World Bank on Creative Commons