By Bizibrains Okpeh,

There is no gainsaying that digitalisation has become one of the hallmarks of the 21st Century. Human interactions, commercial and social activities are increasingly being digitalised so much so that human existence is fast becoming intrinsically linked, integrated, or connected with “digital life”. This has been made possible by the advancement in Internet and Communication Technology (ICT) and the Internet of Things (IoT), which ensures the continuing development and invention of new smart technologies, applications, and software to facilitate, and in some instances anchor, human communications, interactions, and transactions, with more than 100 billion devices or applications now connected to the internet (Ford online news), sometimes creating “new and complex” rights, and dynamic perspective in human rights discourse often referred to as digital rights.

“Digital rights are those [bundle of] human rights and legal rights that allow individuals to access, use, create, and publish digital media or to access and use computers, other electronics devices, and telecommunications networks. The concept is particularly related to the protection and realization of existing rights, such as the right to privacy and freedom of expression, in the context of digital technologies, especially the internet.” (Wikipedia)

The internet has become the highway of massive data and information flow, harbouring an unprecedented volume of data and information and connecting billions of people around the world.

However, regrettably, these digital rights suffer increasing incessant violations consisting in the nefarious and fraudulent activities of cybercriminals and internet fraudsters (“Yahoo Yahoo”) and other cyber, electronic, or internet offences, including cyber terrorism, cyberbullying, cyberstalking, cybersquatting, hacking, cyber flashing, cyber invasion, cyber threats, cyber conspiracy, phishing and spamming, cyber (disability) discrimination, racism, and xenophobia, etc.

Worse still, perhaps of equal or greater threat to digital rights are the undemocratic, regressive, and repressive government policies and directives, which result in the continual clampdown on access to the internet, irregular “official” data privacy invasions, surveillance and wiretapping, arrest of e-activists/bloggers, and restriction, suspension, and bans on access to digital devices or platforms, such as social media, by governments of various countries, including Nigeria, which recently banned access to Twitter and made several attempts to arrogate somewhat sweeping powers to itself to control the broadcasting and social media space.

While digital or electronic technology devices may be one of the options available to most people to undertake their day to day activities, transactions, communication, or interactions, to persons with disabilities, especially persons who are blind, visually impaired, or otherwise print disabled, it is fast becoming (or has largely become) the most veritable alternative to print or text-based materials, ensuring the development of adapted internet applications, software, or electronic devices, and the publication of books or published works in accessible formats by use of assistive technology devices, some of which are digitalised or electronicalised. Thereby furthering the digital (disability) rights of persons with disabilities and inclusive access to information.

There is, therefore, a necessity to protect the digital rights of Nigerians, and a greater need to safeguard the digital rights of persons with disabilities who are susceptible or more likely to bear greater suffering as a result of digital rights violations.

Legal frameworks for the protection of digital rights of persons with disabilities

As a bundle of (interconnected) human rights, it cannot be overemphasised that the  concept of digital rights “is particularly related to the protection and realization of existing rights, such as the right to privacy and freedom of expression [among others], in the context of digital technologies, especially the Internet.” (Wikipedia) Hence, there are many legislation that are directly or indirectly geared towards safeguarding the digital rights of Nigerians, including persons with disabilities, such as the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) (“the Constitution”), Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention, etc.) Act, 2015, Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018 (“the National Disability Act”), and the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act 2015 (“VAPA”), among others.

Under Section 37 of the Constitution, the privacy of citizens, including persons with disabilities, their homes, correspondence, telephone conversations, and telegraphic communications is guaranteed and protected. Also, Section 39(1) and (2) of the Constitution provides that every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference and to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions, subject to the provisor thereunder.

On its part, Section 1 of the National Disability Act generally prohibits, criminalises and punishes all forms of discrimination against persons with disabilities by any person or institution in any manner or circumstance. Also, Section 17 of the Act provides to the effect that persons with disabilities shall be entitled to free education to secondary school level, have an unfettered right to education without discrimination or segregation in any form and the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities (“the Commission”) shall provide educational (informational) assistive devices.

Again, Section 18 of the Act provides for inclusiveness of education to the effect that all public schools, whether primary, secondary, or tertiary shall be run to be inclusive of and accessible to persons with disabilities. Hence, all public schools shall have special facilities for the effective education of persons with disabilities, and Braille, sign language, and other skills for communicating with persons with disabilities shall form part of the curricular of primary, secondary, and tertiary institutions.

Furthermore, in addition to one of the functions of the Commission to collaborate with the media to make information available in accessible formats for persons with disabilities as provided under Section 38(q), Section 15 of the Act provides to the effect that any general information shall be translated into the accessible format appropriate to the person with a disability, including the print disabled.

It may be submitted that the general effect of the above sections is that information, including internet, or electronic, or digital materials, should be in such formats or facilities that are accessible to persons with disabilities and the print disabled by use of adapted assistive technology devices.

Furthermore, the VAPA expressly prohibits and criminalises all forms of violence – including emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse (Section 14) and intimidation (Section 18) – against any person, including persons with disabilities, in private and public life. Section 46 of the Act defines “emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse” as a pattern of degrading or humiliating conduct towards any person [including a person with a disability], including but not limited to – (a) repeated insults, (b) ridicule or name-calling, (c) repeated threats to cause emotional pain and (d) the repeated exhibition of obsessive possessiveness, which is of such a nature as to constitute a serious invasion of such a person’s privacy, liberty, and integrity. It is submitted that “emotional and psychological abuse” is capable of being perpetrated through online media, and may also constitute cybercrimes in appropriate instances.

For instance, cyberstalking – intentionally sending or causing a message or other matter to be sent by means of computer systems or network that is grossly offensive, pornographic, indecent, obscene, or menacing character, false or causes annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will, or needless anxiety to another, or to bully, threaten or harass another person, or put another person in fear of death, violence or bodily harm, or threat to kidnap any person or harm the person of another, or demand or request for a ransom for the release of any kidnapped person, or threat to harm the property or reputation of the addressee, etc. – could also constitute or result in emotional and psychological violence/abuse and intimidation, equally prohibited under the VAPA.

As the reader would come to see, the VAPA is equally important to ensure the protection of the digital rights of persons with disabilities. Because psychological violence or abuse consists in insult, blaming, shaming, gaslighting, name-calling, rejection, dismissiveness, bullying, manipulation, infantilisation, minimisation, withholding, destruction of property, deprivation, and other aggressing, degrading, humiliating, and intimidating treatments and/or threats, all of which could also be perpetrated through the internet or social media. And the threat to deny, withhold or deprive, or actual denial, withholding, or deprivation cut across all amenities of life, including liberty, food, shelter, education, information, and access to the internet and internet devices or platforms.

To ensure the realisation of Sections 37 and 39 of the Constitution in the context of Internet and Communication Technology (ICT) and to consolidate the digital rights of every person in Nigeria, including persons with disabilities, and ensure inclusive and unfettered access to information, including digital or electronic platforms/materials, the Cybercrimes Act criminalises and punishes several acts that constitute undue interference on or violate the digital rights of others, including cyber terrorism, child pornography and other related offences (cyber flashing), cyberstalking, cybersquatting, racist and xenophobic offences and cyber threats (cyber (disability) discrimination), cyber conspiracy, phishing and spamming, as contained under Sections 18, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, and 32 respectively.

In particular, Section 23(3)(b)(iii) of the Act provides to the effect that it is a punishable offence for any person to intentionally propose, groom or solicit, through any computer system or network, to meet a child         for the purpose of engaging in sexual activities with      the child where abuse is made of a particularly vulnerable situation of the child, mental or physical disability, or a situation of dependence.

Internet restrictions, social media bans, etc. and access to information by persons with disabilities

One of the many social issues in Nigeria is the information poverty among persons who are blind, visually impaired, or otherwise print disabled, which engenders great inequality and non-inclusive access to qualitative information and learning.

Globally, there is information poverty or scarcity among more than 185 million persons who are print disabled. Available data shows that in both the developed and developing climes, 95% and 99%, respectively, of all information (books or published works) are not accessible to the print disabled. In Africa, including Nigeria, less than 1% of published works are accessible to the print disabled. In the case of Nigeria, this means that more than 30 million persons with disabilities and 4.25 million persons with print disabilities are generally and specifically at actual risk of information poverty respectively.

To reduce this global information (book) famine and ensure equal, sustainable, and inclusive access to information, in addition to the slow and steady rollout of accessible internet applications, books, or published works are now being republished or published in accessible formats using assistive technology devices, some of which are electronicalised or digitalised.

However, the continual clampdown on access to digital information, manifested in internet restrictions or bans on internet applications, contents, or platforms, such as social media, among others, does not only result in clogging access to information to the print disabled but also constitutes a grave violation of their digital (human) rights, seeing as their most accessible sources of quantitative and qualitative information are fast becoming or have become largely electronicalised and/or digitalised. There is, therefore, a greater need to protect the digital rights of persons with disabilities, especially the print disabled.

This would ensure the continuous flow of (digital/electronic) information to the print disabled, ensure meaningful engagement and online interactions of persons with disabilities who live mostly in exclusion and isolation, reduce the information scarcity/poverty among the print disabled, especially persons who are blind or visually impaired, and ensure equal, sustainable, and inclusive access to information and learning in Nigeria. This would also facilitate the attainment of most of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Internet restrictions, social media bans, cyberbullying, etc. and mental health of persons with disabilities

Yet another social issue bedeviling persons with disabilities, including the print disabled, in Nigeria is increasing poor mental health. This is due largely to disability discrimination and social exclusion. This ensures that most persons with disabilities live in isolation, confinement, or solitude, with little or no association or interaction with their immediate and/or outside environment. This condition is further exacerbated by restrictions, or bans on, or inadequate or lack of access to the internet and/or internet applications, especially in remote areas of the country where internet services are ordinarily not available or inadequate.

Available data from the World Health Organisation shows that in Nigeria, an estimated 20 to 30 percent of people suffer from mental health illness. The implication is that Nigeria has more than 60 million persons with mental health illnesses. Needless to say that persons with disabilities make up a large proportion of this number as, according to Sobsey (1995), they are 4 to 10 times more likely to suffer from physical, social, and psychological violence (which contribute significantly to mental health deficiency) than persons without disabilities.

Continuous accessible internet services and unfettered access to digital materials or applications, including social media, therefore, offer a veritable alternative to persons with disabilities, including persons who are blind, or visually impaired, or otherwise print disabled, to keep relevant and meaningful engagement and conversation with their immediate and outside environment, thereby contributing to stabilise their mind and helping them to maintain healthy mental health.

Needless to underscore that human beings are social beings and “humans are inherently relational creatures” (Charlotte Walker). Thus, “[h]uman interaction is not only physically beneficial, but also imperative for mental health. Loneliness and social isolation are…harmful…to physical and mental health.” And at this time of the Covid19 pandemic where increasing human interactions now occur online, “Technology can offer a very anemic connection,” yet oxygenating enough to foster healthy mental health if the right conditions are made and undue interference or violations are removed. This is more so for persons with disabilities.

Moreover, persons with disabilities who are able to make use of internet services often face undue interference or violations in the form of criminal, abusive, or offensive cyber activities from others, including but not limited to, cyberstalking, cyberbullying, and online disability-based discriminations.

Thus, digital rights violations, whether by government or individuals, are not only an assault on, or violations of the human (disability) rights of persons with disabilities but also could lead to or constitute psychological violence (in themselves), which contributes significantly to the poor mental health of persons with disabilities, as such undemocratic and criminal actions, as the case may be, entrench withdrawal, and social isolation and exclusion in the 21st Century world – a world much more interconnected by the internet and social media like never before.

Which way forward?

The importance of digital rights cannot be overstated. The rapid advancements and innovations in digital, communication, or internet technologies, leading to unprecedented growth in internet applications and software, ensures that the world has become ever more globalised and interconnected.

The result is that the internet, through these applications and online materials, has increasingly become the hub for human interactions, social life, and the largest global marketplace. Thereby creating digital rights, which are human rights, and which every person is entitled to for the full realisation of their talents and potential in the 21st Century world.

This is more so for persons with disabilities, especially persons who are blind, visually impaired, or otherwise print disabled who rely on assistive technology devices or accessible formats, some of which are electronicalised or digitalised,  to access information.

Worse still, most members of the public, including persons with disabilities, are not even aware of their digital rights and lack sufficient knowledge of how to identify any breach of the same and the remedies available to them.

At a time when there is a massive attack on the digital rights of Nigerians, including persons with disabilities, ranging from the activities of cybercriminals to undemocratic government actions, engendering social isolation and exclusion, shrinking the civic space, and stifling free speech and access to digital information and contents, and given it overwhelming impact on the welfare, livelihood, and mental health of persons with disabilities, there is, therefore, a greater need to create widespread awareness to forestall digital rights violations and protect the digital rights of persons with disabilities.

Okpeh is a lawyer, researcher, and disability rights advocate. Reach him at bizibrains@gmail.com

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