The need for social media regulation
By Miriam Tose Majome
It is estimated that half of the world’s population now uses social media. This is according to the Digital 2021 Global Statshot report.
Global Web Index (GWI) puts it at 57.6% with around 400 million new users added to the list every year. The exponential increase in the use of social media has necessitated the development of laws to regulate and govern social media worldwide.
Social media is a computer technology that facilitates the sharing of ideas, thoughts, opinions and information through the creation of virtual networks and communities.
There are different social media platforms, the most common of which are WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, instagram and Youtube.
Zimbabwe has lagged behind other countries in enacting laws governing cyberspace and social media. The Data Protection Act was published in the Official Gazette in December 2021 to provide for the lawful use of media technology and the investigation and collection of evidence of cybercrime and unauthorized data collection and breaches and the admissibility of electronic evidence in court.
The law was long overdue and welcome to fill the void created by the legal vacuum amid rapid and ever-evolving technological change. Admittedly, the law is not perfect and many gray areas remain which create loopholes and opportunities for abuse and manipulation on the part of users and the State. Some media professionals view the law as potentially repressive and capable of being used to muzzle online media and limit media freedom in cyberspace.
The idea of regulating the social media space in Zimbabwe still faces criticism. The perception seems to be that social media is a space where people have absolute freedom to express themselves without laws or rules, as the internet has no central government and no one claims ownership of it.
Indeed, many people share this view and act accordingly, but it is a mistaken view. For a long time, in other countries, there have been laws and rules governing the use of computers and the Internet.
The majority of countries have had cybersecurity laws for many years that govern the use of social media, among other things. For comparison, in neighboring South Africa, there is the Cybercrimes Act which exists to detect, prevent and investigate all kinds of cybercrimes including those committed on social media.
In the United States, there is no single law regulating cybersecurity, but different states have their own laws. Examples are the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Communications Decency Act. In the UK, the Computer Misuse Act 1990 deals with all matters relating to cybercrime and computer crime. The need to regulate the Internet and social media is a universally recognized concept. The only difference is in the scope of the regulations. Some countries have very repressive laws while others have quite lax laws, but everything is still regulatory.
Social media law is a developing specialized area of law. Law schools at some universities now offer it either as a stand-alone course or as a course option. Social media law has both criminal and civil aspects as in the material world. It is essential to regulate social media in order to deal with related crimes. You can’t let people get away with crimes wherever they happen. The consequences of all crimes are serious. Invading privacy is one of the biggest transgressions committed on social media.
Examples of this include the unlawful public sharing of other people’s private and confidential information or other aspects of their lives without their consent.
This violates the right of others to personal dignity and to their protection against humiliating and degrading treatment. People casually share images and other content on social media related to infidelity or alleged crimes without realizing its illegality.
People’s lives, careers and reputations have been ruined by simple gossip and social media rules. Social media has no central control and therefore injured parties have no opportunity to defend themselves and save their reputation. Social media is a bottomless virtual abyss and an endless ruthless maze of oblivion.
Other civil offenses include defamation, cyber-harassment, abuse and theft of intellectual property, pornography and others. The many social media offenses are defined in law and the resulting penalties, including jail time and fines.
While violators can be prosecuted and imprisoned by the state, individuals who feel aggrieved by the actions of social media users can sue for defamation and other offenses and seek damages. Even before the Data Protection Act, legal instruments like the Post and Telecommunications Act and the Penal Code could be used to deal with certain cybercrimes.
The issue of anonymity is the most serious concern in dealing with social media crime. Even the gods themselves are struggling in vain to find a solution to the problem of ghost accounts.
These are stories whose origin is very difficult if not impossible to trace to unmask the identity of the people behind them in order to hold them accountable for their crimes.
This is the biggest challenge for regulators such as the Zimbabwe Media Commission and other seized media bodies to deal with complaints from the public when they have been defamed or insulted on social media.
Governments can also be the biggest abusers of the Internet and civil liberties. Without a valid reason, they can order the complete shutdown of the Internet or social media sites or even spy on political opponents.
This is done at politically sensitive times like elections or protests, accusing the internet and social media of fueling anti-government narratives.
Examples include the Zimbabwean government shutting down the internet in January 2019 during nationwide protests against rising fuel prices and the resulting riots.
In Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari ordered the closure of Twitter across the country for seven months from June 2021 to January 2022 after a spat with the microblogging site over the deletion of a tweet he had posted. India has earned itself the name of “Internet Shutdown Capital of the World” due to regular full or partial internet shutdowns ordered by the government for various reasons.
The Software Freedom Law Center has recorded a total of 550 Internet shutdowns since 2012.
Advocating for effective regulation of social media is not an argument for limiting people’s civil and media freedoms.
The majority of social media users, including anonymous accounts, are responsible enough and do not use social media as a wall through which to attack and abuse people and spread harmful content.
Social media has many social and economic benefits and as such should not be over-regulated. The many benefits also come with their own challenges.
Social media is used to effectively promote vices such as child pornography, violence, political insurrection, terrorism, and fake news among a plethora of evils.
Fake news is used to spread harmful conspiracy theories that have an adverse effect on public health and public safety. Fake news about the origins of the coronavirus and COVID-19 vaccines has increased public panic and rejection of scientific advice that has harmful consequences that are still being felt.
There are many other examples that point to the need for more effective yet balanced regulation of social media.
- Miriam Tose Majome is an attorney at Veritas. She writes here in a personal capacity and can be contacted at [email protected]