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Censorship in disguise: Social media taxes 'violate net neutrality'

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Censorship in disguise: Social media taxes 'violate net neutrality'

Thalia Holmes

07 Aug 2018

4min min read
  • Freedom of expression

Censorship in Africa now has a new name: it’s called social media tax and regulation. It’s been flaring up in various parts of the continent, and the effects are sometimes subtle and often effective. 

Take Tanzania, for example. Regulations implemented in March now require bloggers and other “online content creators” to pay an annual licence fee of $930. That amount is right on par with GDP per capita, which was $936 in 2017, according to the World Bank.  

On July 1, Uganda introduced a social media tax, which requires citizens to pay a daily fee of US $0.05 before they can participate in Whatsapp conversations or log onto platforms such as Facebook, Twitter or Skype.  

In Zambia, conflicting statements are emerging from directors of the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (Zicta) that administrators of all Whatsapp groups could in future be required to “register” with the authority.  

“Governments on the continent seem to be sharing notes on how to ‘legally’ limit free speech and access to information,” said Kuda Hove, the legal and ICT policy officer of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) in Zimbabwe. 

“They now opt to introduce restrictive laws and policies that effectively put social media tools out of reach of low-income internet users.” 

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Musician turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi (C) is joined by other activists in Kampala on 11 July 2018 during a demonstration to protest a controversial tax on the use of social media. (Sumy Sudurni/AFP/Getty Images)

Tanzanian blogger Elsie Eyakuze, the writer of the Mikonechi Report , has decided to stop publishing her blog as a result of the taxes. Even though she could afford the fees, Eyakuze has frozen her site “in solidarity with the many small blogs, start-up businesses and artists whose online outlets have been killed by this stupid regulation”. 

“It is a transparent move on the part of the government to silence what was becoming a vibrant, critical, dynamic, diverse and increasingly influential uncensored public dialogue," Eyakuze said. 

According to her, those who refuse to pay the fee are part of a small minority. A vast number of bloggers are choosing to comply. “Government pet bloggers paid up and are fine,” she said. “Commercial blogs and private sector are apolitical and can afford the fees. Political blogs that can afford the fee are changing their modus operandi to adhere to the regulations. Then there is the handful of protesters. Some are on hiatus like me and some just shifted blog ownership to a friend outside Tanzania to circumvent [the regulations].”

Eyakuze argues that the law should be amended to only charge blogs that meet a minimum revenue threshold, thus ensuring it only targets those who can afford the tax.  

Uganda-based digital journalist Prudence Nyamishana says that the social media tax is having a significant economic impact on the people in her country. “For many, who are low income earners, Facebook and WhatsApp is an entry point to the internet. That means those that cannot afford the tax and were relying on free basics have been shut out,” she said. 

The Uganda Bureau of statistics reported that inflation rate had risen by one percentage point in the four weeks following the introduction of the tax. 

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa recently estimated that the social media tax raised the cost of connectivity by at least 10% for Uganda’s poorest citizens. 

Some of Uganda’s more tech-savvy social media users are circumventing the tax by using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). VPNs essentially create a private network by leveraging a public network’s infrastructure, and allow users to send and receive information privately. “For those that I have spoken to, some of the VPN apps have no significant costs,” said Nyamishana. They also provide a way for the middle class to resist paying the taxes on principle. But once again, those who can afford smart phones with apps, and those with the technological know-how to operate them are in the higher end of the economic stratum.   

“Discriminating against those who are poorer is immediately a problem because you want a level playing field for people to communicate,” said South African media researcher Kate Skinner. “You’ve got to have a diversity of voices if you’re going to have a real conversation and for democracy to thrive.” 

Widening the digital divide

In Nyamashina’s opinion, the taxes fly in the face of basic human rights. “Internet shutdowns widen the digital divide,” she said. “Even if the fee is small, it is a clear violation of net neutrality. Internet access is a human right – I feel violated because the internet should be open and accessible.”

Independent South African advocate Ben Winks highlighted that Nyamishina’s sentiments have some legal grounding. “The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights does guarantee the right to receive information, and to express and disseminate opinions ‘within the law’,” he told Africa Portal.

“This means that the rights may be restricted, but only to the extent that is strictly necessary to achieve a legitimate public purpose, such as national security, public morality, human dignity and so forth. So, for example, it is permissible to restrict the dissemination of state secrets, pornography, defamatory material and hate speech, but only to the extent that is strictly necessary. The same balancing exercise would apply to the laws in Uganda and Tanzania,” said Winks. 

In this setting, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s justification that the new tax would help to quash “online gossip” would not likely be viewed by the court as something “strictly necessary”. However, Uganda has yet to agree to the Court’s jurisdiction to such challenges. The hope for this kind of legal recourse is better for those living in Tanzania, which is one of the eight African states that have done so. Even if this route were taken, though, Winks points out that it would “take a couple of years for the case to be finalised".

But outraged Ugandans have taken other legal steps to bring their government to book. A Ugandan tech company has teamed up with five individuals to file a lawsuit against the country’s revenue and communications authorities over the "unconstitutional" tax. 

Silver Kayondo, one of the petitioners, said on Twitter: “In my affidavit I contend that the tax offends the principles of #NetNeutrality & Open #internet. We must protect Ugandan e-commerce businesses.”  

Following widespread protests in July, Ugandan Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda reportedly announced that government will "review" the legislation but this has not appeased locals, who want it scrapped entirely. 

(Main image: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.