On Sunday 1 July, the Ugandan government began imposing a tax on social media use. The Excise Duty (Amendment) Bill imposes costs of 200 Ugandan Shillings (Shs) per day on citizens. Failure to pay the tax results in citizens being cut off from social media by their ISP.
The tax can be paid either daily (Shs 200/$0.05), weekly (Shs 1400/$0.36), or monthly (Shs 6,000/$1.56). Payments must be made in advance via mobile phone.
For citizens in Uganda - where around 80% of the population earns less than a dollar a day - five cents a significant amount. Especially, when added to the existing cell phone and Internet access data bundles they must already pay for.
According to the Alliance for Affordable Internet, the added cost of the new tax forces up internet connection prices (for 1GB of data) to a whopping 40% of an average citizen’s monthly income.
Loss of services
The new Over The Top (OTT) excise duty was passed by Parliament in May. It forces ISPs to begin blocking a huge number of popular services including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tinder, SnapChat, Tumblr, and dozens more. It also affects online messengers and Voice over IP (VoIP) services like WhatsApp, Telegram, Viber, Line, and Skype.
On Sunday, when the tax came into effect, all three local Telecoms companies - MTN, Airtel, and Africell - immediately began implementing service blackouts for customers who failed to pay the tax. The result has been an immediate surge in people looking for a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service.
According to Google search trend data, prior to the new social media tax very few people were searching for a VPN. Fast forward to 1 July, and the picture changes considerably - with Google suddenly reporting a massive spike of people looking for a VPN.
A VPN allows Ugandan citizens to pretend to be outside of the country. This allows them to bypass the social media blackouts imposed by local ISPs - thus saving themselves the cost of the new tax bill.
The response from the government has been swift. Uganda’s Communications Commission Executive Director, Godfrey Mutabazi, has ordered ISPs to begin blocking VPNs. Mutabazi has admitted that it won’t be easy to block all VPNs because “there are many”.
However, because the average cost of a premium VPN is around $6 per month - and the tax is $1.50. With that in mind, it seems fair to assume that Ugandan ISPs will have been told to start by blocking free VPNs first.
It is not yet clear whether ISPs are going to lift those VPN restrictions for people that pay the internet tax, or whether the crackdown will be more substantial. Mutabazi said:
"Telecom companies have been directed to subject the VPN to the tax based on available technology or switch them off one by one."
Not worth it?
Mutabazi has gone on the record to warn Ugandan citizens that there is no benefit in avoiding the tax by using a VPN. According to Uganda’s Communications Commission Executive Director, even free VPNs cause data overheads that could end up costing Ugandan internet users more money than the tax itself.
Sadly, there may be some truth behind this. The encryption implemented by VPNs does cause some minimal data overheads. And because the tax is 5 cents per day - it is possible that the extra VPN data usage may incur similar data costs as the price of the tax itself.
One Ugandan going by the Twitter handle @solomonking commented:
"Those saying 200/- is little money or that VPNs cost more forget that 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.#SocialMediaTax"
Anybody interested in using a free VPN can refer to our list of the best free services. ProtonVPN, which features on the list, told ProPrivacy.com:
“This is precisely why ProtonVPN has a free version, so that even in countries where people cannot afford to pay, they can still get Internet freedom without compromising their privacy."
Since the new tax came into effect, Amnesty International has called on the government to scrap the tax. The human rights organization says the tax is an obvious attempt to silence dissent within the country. Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International’s Director for East Africa commented:
“It is not the place of the Ugandan authorities to determine which discussions taking place on social media platforms are useful. Rather, it is their responsibility to uphold and nurture unfettered enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression, both online and offline.”
A petition has also been filed at Uganda’s Constitutional Court by a group of activists, opposition party members and lawyers, who claim the tax is unconstitutional. The petition was filed under the Cyber Law Initiative by four attorneys - Mr. Opio Bill Daniel, Mr. Baguma Moses, Mr. Okiror Emmanuel, and Mr. Silver Kayondo.
Sadly, Uganda’s courts are so backlogged that it could take years for the case to reach a verdict.
A history of blackouts
This is not the first time that people living in Uganda have suffered a loss of online services. In February 2016, the nation suffered a bout of government enforced social media blackouts during presidential elections. At that time, Uganda's opposition, Forum for Democratic Change, claimed that the elections appeared to have been rigged. This led to mass demonstrations throughout Uganda for a second vote to take place.
Three months later, in May of 2016, the government blocked access to Twitter, Facebook, and the messaging service WhatsApp on the day of Yoweri Museveni's inauguration as president. According to official reports, the measures were taken in order to “limit the possibility of terrorists taking advantage" of the presence of foreign leaders in Uganda.
This history of censorship proves that the Ugandan government is willing to cut access to vital forms of communication to silence dissenting voices and political opponents. With the new social media tax being used to crack down on VPN use in the country - should the government suddenly decide to enforce mass blackouts - people living in Uganda could have serious problems bypassing government blocks.
This is extremely concerning, considering the allegations of corruption and election rigging in the country. Museveni is accused of using tax money to line his own pockets and to pay the police and army to ensure there is no opposition to him as leader.
“Restricting access to these channels of information or communication is a violation of fundamental human rights, including ones enshrined in Uganda’s constitution," Harold Li, vice president of ExpressVPN told ProPrivacy.com. "It also sets a dangerous precedent for arbitrary governmental control over the internet.”
Angela Quintal from the Committee to Protect Journalists also believes that the new tax is being used to smother dissent in the nation:
"Ugandan authorities' efforts to demonize social media also betray an interest in muzzling criticism of the government. For example, Justine Kasule Lumumba, the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) Secretary General, claimed in June that social media was being used to fuel a "hate campaign" against Museveni and the NRM. Restricting citizens' access to information online is not the appropriate method for dealing with social challenges, like false news and other forms of disinformation."
How to bypass VPN blocks
Anybody who wants to use a VPN to bypass the new social media tax is advised to act quickly. For the time being, it may still be possible to find a reliable VPN from within Uganda. Sadly, things might not stay like that for long. We have already received some reports of VPNs being blocked in Uganda - in the messages below our reviews.
Anybody concerned that they may lose the ability to subscribe to a VPN further down the line is advised to access and download a reliable VPN client now.
If you do need to unblock a VPN, we recommend that you look at our how to bypass VPN blocks guide.
Title image credit: zefart/Shutterstock.com
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