Why Uganda’s Social Media Tax Can’t Survive

Written by Tom Jackson


Uganda has rolled out its controversial daily tax on citizens making use of social media, to widespread dismay and condemnation.

It is one of the more regressive steps taken on a continent that is seeing online freedom of speech and access to information challenged by suspicious governments, and came about after President Yoweri Museveni said sites like Facebook and Twitter were being used for “gossip”.

It is unclear if President Museveni – an avid Twitter user himself with almost 900,000 followers – will be paying the new tax, but the government says it is here to stay.

But is it? For so many reasons, the Ugandan social media tax can’t and must not survive.

A social media tax is wrong

Perhaps most basically, charging people – some of whom are amongst the poorest in the world – to use services vital for free speech and access to information is just wrong. The Ugandan government has a track record here, having blocked internet access in the run-up to the February 2016 elections, and though Museveni has insisted that the government has no plan to tax or hinder wider internet use, who can really be sure?

Condemnations have come from far and wide. Amnesty International has urged Uganda to scrap the tax, saying it is “a clear attempt to undermine the right to freedom of expression”.

“By making people pay for using these platforms, this tax will render these avenues of communication inaccessible for low-income earners, robbing many people of their right to freedom of expression, with a chilling effect on other human rights,” said the organisation’s regional director for East Africa Joan Nyanyuki.

The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) also called for the tax to be reversed.

“The impact on consumers in Uganda – and particularly on low-income users – will be significant, and is likely to force many of these users to curb their internet usage, or to forego access entirely,” it said.

People hate it

social media
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has implemented an unpopular social media tax. Photo – AP – Bullen Chol

The tax has achieved the seemingly impossible by uniting everyone from clerics to politicians to feminists to the man on the street in condemnation.

It is so widely unpopular it is hard to see how even a fairly dictatorial government such as Museveni’s can sustain it.

“Our chances to talk about social, economic and political dilemmas are being restricted. #SocialMediaTax limits our interaction avenues,” said one Twitter user.

“People are not protesting the amount being paid, but the principle behind taxing every little thing from an already suffering economy so a corrupt government can get even more money to steal,” another said.

And those were just the polite ones.

The first legal challenges have already arrived, too, with non-profit organisation Cyber Law Initiative Uganda announcing it has filed a petition to Uganda’s Constitutional Court to challenge the tax.

Nobody can afford it

Low-income Ugandans are going to have a hard time affording the tax on a daily basis, especially as the country’s main mobile operators MTN Uganda, Africell and Airtel Uganda have all confirmed they will impose the social media tax on SIM cards, with fees payable via mobile money.

Smile Telecom, however, has committed to pay the tax for all its subscribers for three months. Even this is a bold and potentially unsustainable move, however. Telecoms in Uganda, as in many African markets, face a number of challenges, and already have limited margins. The potential loss of subscribers or the cost of having to pay out to cover the tax hurts them even more.

It would not be at all surprising if one or more of those telecoms firms choses to shut up shop in Uganda if the government – which has also started taxing mobile money services – continues to over-regulate in this respect.

Social media apps are key to driving usage, so telecoms will have been unhappy with these new laws, but if they don’t implement the tax they face fines or suspension of services.

Something has to give.

It won’t work

The whole concept is likely to fall apart as it just isn’t workable. On day one there were problems with blocking people from using social media sites, especially in rural areas, and most people will surely find a way around it.

Indeed, Twitter is aglow with Ugandans boasting of having secured virtual private networks (VPNs) to use social media and appear to be accessing the service from outside of Uganda, thereby avoiding the tax.

BestVPN.com, a VPN comparison site, reported that the number of Ugandan visitors to its service increased by 1,567 percent between Saturday and Sunday, when the new law came into effect. Ugandan searches for VPNs have significantly increased on Google too.

The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) is aware of this, telling citizens to not bother getting VPNs as they are more expensive anyway, and ordering the country’s mobile operators to block their use. Yet there is little it can do. People will find a way around it.

With so many problems and so much condemnation, it is hard to see how this regressive policy can survive in the long-term. There may yet be hope that this vile, anti-democratic law will be consigned to the dustbin, where it belongs.

Tom Jackson is co-founder of Disrupt Africa, a news and research company focused on the African tech startup ecosystem.

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