Nigerian Internet Remains Free of Tampering During Tumultuous Elections

By: Rob on 30 April 2007

Lagos, Nigeria: Nigeria’s local and national elections of April 2007 were marked by widespread charges of fraud and disenfranchisement. A team of election monitors from the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) traveled to Nigeria during the elections to test for evidence of Internet tampering. Certain sensitive political sites were inaccessible around the time of the elections, but these blockages appear to be caused solely by structural problems in Nigeria’s faulty telecommunications network. ONI’s technical monitoring did not reveal evidence of deliberate attempts to block or disable websites critical of the current regime, either during or directly preceding the elections. These conclusions were reached through the analysis of tests carried out by the ONI, a partnership among research institutes at the universities of Cambridge, Toronto, Harvard, and Oxford.

“Nigeria was an important test case given its size and importance to the African continent," said Rafal Rohozinski, an ONI principal investigator and team leader for the ONI’s election monitoring work. “This result may be atypical given the reported increase in what can be termed ‘just in time filtering’ of time sensitive Internet and communications services such as SMS that we have observed around other elections, including in several other African countries."

"The Internet is increasingly an important venue for access to information and discussion among citizens during election periods around the world,” said John Palfrey, one of the ONI’s principal investigators and executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. “The Nigerian elections of 2007 were hardly a case study in freedom and fairness, but our research offers a bit of good news: there was no evidence of anyone tampering with the ability of Nigerians to access information online during the key period of the campaigns."

The ONI team conducted two types of tests during the election period, both of which were carried out by a field team in Lagos. The first testing protocol monitored activity related to a set of politically sensitive sites accessed through a number of Nigerian Internet service providers (ISPs). The results of these tests were analyzed by researchers at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. A second series of tests was run by researchers from the University of Cambridge scanning for anomalies in overall network traffic. Testing began a week before the local elections and continued through the national elections under the coordination of a team of researchers from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

The ONI has been developing methods of monitoring for evidence of event-based Internet filtering or other tampering with Internet access during election periods. In 2004, the ONI mounted Internet-related election monitoring efforts in Kyrgyzstan and Belarus in cooperation with local partners.

ONI ran the Internet election monitoring project in Nigeria because of widespread concerns that the elections would not be free and fair. Observers have claimed that both the local elections of 14 April, as well as the national elections on 21 April, were marred by blatant and widespread violence, fraud, and disenfranchisement. In reference to the elections on 14 April, Peter Takirambudde, Africa Director of Human Rights Watch, stated that "the Nigerian government failed completely in its conduct of a free and fair election" in several key states. Commenting on the presidential elections from the northern town of Kaduna, Max van den Berg, head of the European Union’s observer mission, noted "for now the assessment is outspokenly negative ... I’m very concerned." In addition, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) went so far as to say that the elections represent "a step backward in the conduct of elections in Nigeria."

Nevertheless, the elections appear to have been free from Internet-related attacks and website blocking. According to local statistics from 2006, only 1.1% of Nigerians have access to the Internet. As the Internet becomes a more important source of political information, many states around the world have begun to filter the Internet more extensively. The absence of tampering with the Internet during this election cycle does not mean that the network in Nigeria will remain free of censorship.

"When very few people have Internet access, the state has few reasons to worry about monitoring or censorship. It’s when the Internet begins to serve some of the roles of mass media that governments can perceive and respond to a threat," said Jonathan Zittrain, an ONI principal investigator and professor of internet governance at Oxford University.