Uganda's 'Pornography-Blocking Machine' Appears To Be Part Of A Darker Censorship Agenda

Uganda’s pornography-detecting machine is set to arrive in the country next month, according to media reports. The machine will reportedly detect porn pictures, videos or graphics taken or saved on one’s phone, computer or camera in any form.

The machine, which cost the government a whopping UGX 300 million ($88,000) was developed in South Korea.

This machine is part of a drive to “stamp pornography out of the Ugandan society”, and the Uganda Anti-Pornography Law of 2014 stipulates that the penalty for offenders upon conviction is a fine of UGX 10 million ($3000) or up to 10 years in jail, or both.

I think there's more than meets the eye here, possibly a battle something more than pornography itself on the cards.

First, we need to understand what this obsession with monitoring, prohibiting and destroying pornographic material comes from.

Uganda’s Directorate of Ethics and Integrity, led by Fr. Simon Lokodo, was given the mandate to police and fight pornography by the Anti Pornography Act. To support this mission, Lokodo and team, through a Pornography Control Committee, were allocated UGX 2.6 billion ($770,000) for the sole purpose of enforcing the law. The US$88k porn detection machine is only the first phase of their ambitious plans.

The details about how the machine will work remain unknown, but what is apparent is that this Act will have serious implications for the 32% of Uganda’s population of 35 million that regularly uses the internet.

Declarations of morality aside, Ugandans are huge consumers of pornography, and the country came third in a 2013 list of countries that searched gay porn the most, closely behind Kenya and Pakistan.

Pornography in general is considered a taboo subject, though indications are that plenty of Ugandans consume it in some form. This can be seen in the sheer and insurmountable appetite for sextapes and nudes of local celebrities and wild university students. There is a new leak at almost every turn.

This could be the rationale behind a push to monitored and prohibit pornography.

However, moves to prohibit sexual content have faced severe manoeuvres by people all over the world - not because of ostensible levels of moral decadence but mostly because humans are naturally wired to experiment and break rules.

That is why in countries such as Egypt where porn was banned in 2012, and in conservative Islamic countries such as Syria, pornography continues to be consumed and produced in significant quantities despite tight prohibitions.

In 2015, India banned pornography and blocked access to at least 857 websites hosting pornographic content. However, in a quick turn of events, the ban was reversed after just a week, and the whole thing was dead in the water.

While the reasons given for the reversal ranged around cultural pluralism and tolerance of dissenting views, it was apparent that the data usage was going for an obvious dive since revenues on voice services had seemingly plateaued in the recent past.

By default, telcos are some of the largest beneficiaries of porn consumption because it drives up data usage.

Last year, Airtel India’s CEO intimated to the Huffington Post that filtering child porn was technically impossible. The same will be case for Uganda ISPs.

It’s very expensive and tasking to build systems that filter out some kind of content, especially given the volumes of traffic that go through the internet every day. The costs are prohibitively higher than what the immediate benefits could potentially be.

As per Anti-Pornography Act, Part III, Act 17

An Internet Service Provider (ISP) who, by not using, or enforcing the means or procedure recommended by the Committee to control pornography, permits to be downloaded or uploaded through its service, or any content of pornographic nature, commits an offence and is liable , on conviction, to a fine not exceeding 500 currency points (Shs. 10 million) , or imprisonment not exceeding 5 years or both.Uganda Anti-Pornography Act Part III

Telcos have previously been complicit in taking in government orders and directives, not only by effecting social media and mobile money blockades but also by unplugging potentially troublesome websites.

Given the telcos’ lack of sufficient capacity to handle such herculean tasks - monitoring and blocking porn content - and given the cost involved in setting up these content filters to cut out content that could be deemed offensive, fully blocking such transgressing content could be a pipe dream, and the people in charge know this. That’s why they lobbied for the machine in the first place.

The machine will most likely come laced with Deep Packet Inspection Technologies, which according to Infosectoday is at stage of tremendous growth. Basically, Deep packet inspection allows for the identification of content from web traffic, its source, and its destination.

Considering that every SIM card in Uganda is (or should be) registered to a particular user, it's possible to know when someone is accessing pornographic content. This means that websites and applications will be forensically analyzed in the backend and offenders to the law will be identified.

There is a loophole, however. Apps like WhatsApp and Telegram have baked in end-to-end encryption that insulates users from man-in-the-middle attacks, and they are already popular as conduits of porn material. This could be the machine's Achilles heel.

I am not suggesting that Whatsapp and Telegram cannot be hacked. However, doing so would be resource-intensive, and initiating such mass surveillance campaigns would be more trouble than it's worth.

An interesting tidbit about the machine’s technology is that it can trace traffic from VPNs and proxy networks such as Tor. With such leads, they can they block the nodes routing traffic from the VPNs in question.

This means that we are unlikely to see a repeat of what happened during the social media blackout that was instituted in February during election time, when VPN clients were downloaded 1.5 million times to bypass restrictions.

The authorities and the Uganda Communications Commission were outwitted on their own turf. It would not be surprising if the machine could be part of a proactive strategy to effectively block whatever website they want, and actually keep the lights on.

Still, even though, smart internet people (with exception of China) can find ways around such walled gardens, many people would be alienated should another blockade happen.

The porn machine comes in robes of policing and preaching decency, but actually, it could be a veiled anti-VPN/Tor machine - just in another name.