ARCON v. Facebook: Nigerian Government applies to Court for membership of 30 Billion Gang
By Timi Olagunju
On Tuesday, October 4, 2022, at the Federal High Court, FCT, Abuja, the Nigerian Government through The Advertising Regulatory Council of Nigeria (ARCON) sued Meta [Facebook and its local agent] for N30,000,000,000.00 [Thirty Billion Naira] (approximately $69,461,640.00). The government agency claimed Meta continued to publish various social media advertisement content directed at the Nigerian market through Facebook and Instagram, without ensuring such content is vetted and approved by ARCON, and as such posted illegally and immorally, thereby violating the Advertising Regulatory Council of Nigeria (ARCON) Act recently signed into law in 2022 by General Mohammadu Buhari. If ARCON succeeds in this suit, it may well be on its way to earning thirty billion Naira (and more jokingly, joining the 30BG gang) at the expense of individuals and businesses in Nigeria, whilst increasing its power to gag not only Facebook adverts but also advert content across social media platforms as the 2023 elections approach.
Nonetheless, before we proceed on this issue, it is important to state that ARCON [Advertising Regulatory Council of Nigeria] was formally known as APCON (Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria) until it changed its name weeks ago through a new Act that repealed APCON Act 1988. ARCON claims that the new ARCON Act 2022 bestows it with powers to demand that social media platforms receive approval, vetting, and license to publish any content before advertising the same on social media. Ironically, a copy of the new Act is neither available online nor offline – including on ARCON’s website (apconng.blogspot.com) for proper perusal on its content. This new law is becoming Nigeria’s best-kept secret. It was the same law that claimed to give APCON the powers to ban foreign models from Nigerian adverts weeks ago. Yes, same!
This subtlety with APCON leads to further questions about the intentions of the Nigerian Government regarding this suit and the APCON Act itself. Is the Act a backdoor approach for the Nigerian government to gag social media platforms and create fears as the 2023 elections approach? Is this another attempt to achieve what the Federal Government could not through previous social media bills and codes released in the past? Is the government fining Facebook as a guinea pig to ascertain the extent of its powers to gag other social media platforms beyond Facebook? How did ARCON arrive at Thirty Billion Naira as a fine between when the law came into force on October 1, 2022, and October 3, 2022, when the suit was initiated? Why didn’t the National Assembly conduct a public hearing on this Act before it became law to enable public participation? Does ARCON have the human capacity and resources to vet and approve every advert that goes through Facebook or/and other social media platforms? What is the impact of the vetting and license cost for social media advertisements on small businesses or content curators in Nigeria? And finally, why is there a huge discrepancy between the APCON Amendment Bill submitted to the National Assembly in 2017 [https://nass.gov.ng/documents/download/11019] and the one claimed to have been passed but is not available to the public?
There are many more questions to ask ARCON, as we closely monitor the outcome of the case at the Federal Court, FCT, Abuja. Hopefully, Facebook does not settle out of court and insists justice be done, and evidently seen to be done on the issue, for the sake of its Nigerian users by challenging provocative laws and impracticable policies. The truth be told, the Nigerian Government already collects Value Added Tax [VAT] for every advert from Nigerians on Meta’s platforms, so why further inconvenience Nigerian businesses and curators with extra vetting and license cost through Meta?