Mobile internet use in Uganda has dramatically declined following the country's newly imposed social media tax. The tax was reportedly created to limit "gossip" but may have a damaging effect on the country's finances and its citizens' freedom of speech.
The Guardian reports the new charge of 200 shillings ($5) per day for the use of social media platforms has resulted in millions ditching their cellphone internet use. The restriction was placed on over 60 websites and apps, including Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter.
The Uganda Communications Commission shared its discovery on Twitter, stating that internet subscriptions dropped by over 2 million users in only three months since the law went into effect in July.
The motive for the new tax seems to be to limit the number of criticisms directed toward the government.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni reportedly asked the finance department in March to create a new bill that would deal with the spread of information about the government online.
According to Irene Ikomu, a Ugandan lawyer based in Kampala, the president is attempting to lessen the impact of social media on his constituents, particularly with another election less than two years away.
“Heightened exposure to information via the internet has led to Ugandan citizens being more critical about political conditions in the country,” Ikomu told The Guardian.
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Additionally, mobile banking has become a significant form of revenue in the country due to its lack of formal banking services in many areas. With the new tax, many banking services are losing an unprecedented amount of income.
Money generated from mobile transactions reportedly fell by a quarter from June to September due to the new tax. These sites categorized as Over the Top (OTT) were expected to bring in more revenue with the levy, not lose its consumers.
Businesses dedicated to selling data have also been hit, many stating that they've had to lay off employees.
“Customers are not happy about [the tax]. Many have resisted it,” said Paul Cise, a manager at Nov Mobile Limited. “It has made business very difficult. I can’t manage to pay employees and pay rent.”
The Daily Mail reports many Ugandan citizens are silently protesting, using a virtual private network (VPN) instead, which allows usage of restricted social networks by appearing as though they are in another country through hacking.
Using hashtags #ThisTaxMustGo and #NoToSocialMediaTax, citizens are pushing back online despite the government's initiatives to silence them.
Imagine being attacked in Uganda and you want to alert the police but you have no OTT #Thistaxmustgo ????
— BWANA Josh ???????? (@josh_mirondo) January 15, 2019
btw #ThisTaxMustGo – when Europe/UK are looking at regulating social media more closely, #Uganda's gov is looking at taxing citizens for the privilege of using it, comparable to China's Social Credit Scoring ????
— beckymiller33 (@beckymiller33) February 23, 2019
— BOBI WINE (@HEBobiwine) July 15, 2018
Still, the government appears resolute in its decision to infringe upon freedom of speech and believes that the tides will turn soon. Uganda Communications Commission Spokesperson Ibrahim Bbosa says people will adjust and usage will increase.
"The drop in data use was due to customers adjusting their behaviour," said Bbosa. “If I can access internet at work, I would rather access it at work and probably not access it when I am off work premises. Probably, sooner or later, people will realize this is something [they] can live with. The pattern will return to normal.”
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