The Ugandan parliament referred a controversial new social media tax to a committee for further consideration on Thursday, after protesters took to the streets of Kampala last week. The tax, which went into effect July 1, charges 200 Ugandan shillings (or $0.05) per day of use for 60 mobile apps, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp. Critics say it puts an undue burden on the poorest members of society, and that it is an assault on freedom of expression.
“The primary motivation behind [the social media tax] is to silence speech, to reduce the spaces where people can exchange information, and to really be able to control, with the recognition that online platforms have become the more commonly used way for sharing information,” says Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn, and the Great Lakes.
While Uganda’s social media tax is the first of its kind, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it follows a wider trend in the region of governments limiting internet access and speech. Neighboring Tanzania recently passed a law charging bloggers a $930 annual fee to publish online. And earlier this week, Egypt passed a bill allowing the government to block any social media account with more than 5,000 followers if it finds that a person has spread “fake news.” Uganda’s social media tax was passed as part of a larger bill, which also included an unpopular 1 percent tax on all mobile transactions that has since been reduced.
Political analysts have categorized Uganda’s government as “dictatorship light.” The country’s 73-year-old president, Yoweri Museveni, has been in power since 1986. He abolished term limits in 2005 and in January overturned a rule that would have forced him to retire at age 75, instead allowing him to be president for life—a move critics called illegal. During elections in 2016, the government blocked access to social media for days in order to stop the organization of protests, silence or erase support for his opposition, and discourage voting.
“It is not the place of the government to decide what is gossip and what is credible or not.”
Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International
When the social media tax was first announced at the end of May, Museveni reportedly told parliament it was to discourage the spread of “gossip” and to earn revenue from the use of popular social media apps run by foreign companies.
International and domestic outrage followed, but Museveni doubled down on his defense of the tax. “Social-media use is definitely a luxury item,” Museveni wrote in a blog post on July 12, comparing social media to consumer goods like beer, tobacco, and perfume. “Internet use can be sometimes for educational purposes and research. This should not be taxed. However, using internet to access social media for chatting, recreation, malice, subversion, inciting murder, is definitely a luxury.”
Human rights advocates say the focus on “gossip” is an attempt to co-opt genuine concern about misinformation on social media as way to justify censorship.
“It is not the place of the government to decide what is gossip and what is credible or not. When the government attempts to do that, it is really a restriction of the freedom of expression,” says Nyanyuki.
Local opposition to the tax is led by Robert Kyagulanyi, a popular musician known as Bobi Wine who is now a member of parliament. He and fellow musician Alexander Bagonza (A Pass) led the protest in Kampala last week, which the government ended with tear gas. Two protesters were arrested. Wine had to flee back to parliament in a disguise and is now facing charges of assault and theft, according to local reports.
“Now, it is evident that government is only trying to buy time so that Ugandans become complacent and used to this oppression which we refuse,” Kyagulanyi told Voice of America Thursday. “This time, as leaders, we are only coming to join Ugandans because the people raised their voice—which has been and still stands—that this tax must go.”
“I think the government may have been a little taken aback that there really has been a popular pushback against this tax,” says EFF international director Danny O’Brien. “It plays into the government’s ignorance of how the technology is being used on a daily basis.”
In US dollars, the daily tax of 200 shillings adds up to around $19 a year, which might not sound like much until you consider that the per capita GDP in Uganda was $604 in 2017, according to the World Bank. Youth unemployment is an ongoing problem the government and aid groups have been trying to solve by encouraging entrepreneurship. With 42 percent of Ugandans online—a jump of 10 percent over last year—much of the hustle for young entrepreneurs is happening online.
To young Ugandans, the tax is further proof that their government is out of touch—both with how important social media is in their lives, and in how much the tax would burden them, considering it nearly doubles what most people pay daily to get online.
“I think the government is threatened by our use of social media,” says Bagonza, who uses social media to promote his music and reach his fans. Though he describes himself as unpolitical, Bagonza is part of the under-30 generation of young Ugandans who make up 78 percent of the population, and who mostly do not favor Museveni, according to a 2017 poll. “We have the perspective of people who don’t have as much because we come from that side as well. That’s why we stand with the people,” he says.
Social media has proved to be a powerful tool for organizing protest movements, from the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter in the US. Protest hashtags like #notosocialmediatax and #thistaxmustgo have gone viral in response to the Ugandan government’s actions. But Bagonza tells WIRED that most people who showed up for last week’s demonstration in Kampala did not find out about it from social media. Rather, they joined in when they saw people dressed in red marching through the street. Though the protest received a lot of media attention, it was relatively small—with no more than 100 people according to Bagonza. Media reports referred to the gathering as a “crowd.”
Keeping protests small is part of the appeal in limiting social media, say critics. “The president can’t let 100 people gather. Thirty people gathering, police come, tear gas, bullets. You just pick up and go home. I’ve never seen a protest of more than 100 people,” says Anita Mbabazi, a marketer in Kampala for whom social media is an essential part of the job.
The government says it has raised 7 billion shillings from the social media and mobile taxes since the beginning of the month, but many Ugandans have been able to get around paying the former by using VPNs. According to a survey of 2,918 Ugandans conducted by Kampala-based communications firm Whitehead, 57 percent of people who got online since the tax went into effect reported using a VPN. Forty percent said they paid the tax.
The government has threatened to block VPNs, and one MP accused those who avoid the tax of being unpatriotic. “If you are a real committed Ugandan who wants services from your government,” said Frank Tumwebaze, “why are you motivated and proud with your head high to contribute money 30 times OTT tax to the innovator of VPN?” He was referring to the cost of the data it took to download a VPN, although that is a one-time cost, whereas the OTT tax is daily.
Even though there are workarounds, the tax has already had an impact on social media access. Seventy-one percent of respondents reported being extremely inconvenienced, and they reported an 11 percent drop in their overall social media usage since the taxes went into effect. Ugandans who spoke to WIRED reported seeing significantly less engagement with their posts online, too.
The decision by parliament on Thursday effectively keeps the tax in place for at least another 45 days. Opponents have not been optimistic. “I don’t believe they are going to do anything about it. I know it’s going to stay,” says Mbabazi.