As of July 1, Ugandans no longer have free access to social media platforms, having to pay a daily tax to maintain access to 58 sites and apps, including Facebook, Twitter, Signal, and Youtube.
The imposed levy has garnered intense criticism both in Uganda and around the world, calling the move an attempt by the government to censor online speech.
The tax, approved as part of Uganda’s national budget on June 1, requires all users who wish to access voice and messaging services deemed by the government as “Over The Top” like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp to pay 200 Ugandan shillings or five cents “per user per day of access.”
To be able to use these apps, Ugandans have to pay the equivalent of five cents a day, or 18.25 dollars a year to connect to any of their preferred social networking sites—no small sum when the country’s GDP per capita is at 604 dollars.
Most Ugandans access the internet through their mobile phones and will pay the tax through mobile phone operators via individual SIM cards. The number associated with the SIM card is already verified with the owner’s national ID, inextricably linking the phone to the personal details of the owner.
The Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has labeled such voice and messaging services as “over the top (OTT)” arguing that these sites and apps are used for “gossip” and that such social media use is a “luxury item” and should be taxed.
A more likely reason behind this tax has come from critics, who have called the tax an attempt to rob Ugandans of their freedom of speech online, while virtually blocking online access to some of the country’s most impoverished.
This isn’t the first time Uganda has tried blocking access to social media—during their 2016 elections, the government blocked social media for several days, preventing voices opposing incumbent Museveni’s re-election. Museveni has been Uganda’s president since 1986.
How is this affecting Ugandans?
Worryingly, the tax’s intended effect on limiting social media use is already visible. According to a report by a Kampala-based communications firm, total social media usage dropped by 11%, and 71% reported extreme inconvenience since the taxes came into effect. 57% of respondents now use a VPN.
So far, there are no apparent plans to exempt social media use that isn’t deemed “gossip.” Whether this is intended or just plain ineptitude is unclear, but the tax nonetheless stops educators, small businesses, and researchers, and anyone involved in non-”gossip” from accessing platforms that are crucial to their work.
Ugandans are fighting back for net neutrality
While the tax has restricted online criticism of the government, several users are suing the Uganda Communications Commission, Uganda Revenue Authority, and the country’s Attorney General for limiting the fundamental right to freedom of speech, as well as harming businesses that rely on social media platforms.
The petition, filed by the Kampala-based Cyber Law Initiative non-profit is unlikely to be heard any time soon, with Uganda’s courts full to the brim, making a verdict on this case unlikely within the next year.
A VPN and a court case are, however, not enough to plaster over the accelerating corrosion of online free speech in Uganda.
A worrying sign of what the internet might become?
For countries that do not have net neutrality, there is room for similar legislation to be put in place to prevent access to sites and apps that give people the freedom to speak out.
Uganda may be the first to impose a social media tax, but several countries have already imposed restrictions on social platforms. Earlier this year Tanzania introduced regulations that require bloggers to pay $930 a year for a blog license—prohibitively expensive for a country whose GDP per capita is at $936.
With governments and corporations keen to control what the public sees and does in their favor, our fundamental right to the freedom of speech and expression will diminish with what was once a neutral online space. Needless to say, the fight for net neutrality has never been more important.