In a shocking move, Uganda's government has implemented a law requiring mobile users to pay taxes on using social media apps such as Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To voice their frustrations, Ugandans took to Twitter informing the world about the law forcing citizens to pay 200 Ugandan shillings, equivalent to $0.05 or £0.04, for using social media.
The Parliament approved the tax in May 2018 after a significant push from President Yoweri Museveni who argued that social media encourages gossip.
Why is the social media tax being imposed by the government?
The main reason as to why the government has decided to levy the tax on the use of social media is because it is being used by people to spread gossip, primarily - prejudice, opinions, and insults, as explained by President Museveni.
Museveni also addressed Uganda's Finance Minister in March 2018 citing that social media tax could boost the government's tax revenues.
However, he made it clear that he is against imposing a tax on the Internet in general as this would restrict its use for reference, educational, and research purposes.
What are Ugandans saying?
There has been a mixed response to the new social media tax in Uganda. While some believe that it is politically useful as social media is often used to voice politically-aligned opinions, others think that this is a restriction on their freedom of speech.
This is not the first time that social media was under scrutiny in Uganda. In February 2016, social media access was cut off for what government said was national security reasons during the general elections.
Juliet Nanfuka, the Internet rights activist, is worried that this move could be copied elsewhere in Afrika as when one government implements something, chances of other countries following it are high.
Can Ugandans afford it?
Two hundred Ugandan shillings might not seem like a massive tax; however, according to various activists, the charge is significant for the impoverished section of society who already pay a hefty price for Internet access.
Podcast: Daniel Mwesigwa discusses Uganda's social media tax.
As it is, people are not concerned about the monetary value of the tax itself but are instead troubled about the precedent that such a law has been put in place.
How will the social media tax be paid?
The tax is levied on services such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. To access those platforms users are required to pay a fee using the USSD options provided by mobile networks in Uganda.
Screenshot of menu presented to mobile users in Uganda prompting them to pay "OTT Tax"before they are able to use OTT services.
How are Ugandans avoiding the tax?
As they say, smart government equals smart citizens. So, a lot of Ugandan citizens are trying to trick the authorities by using VPNs.
An active VPN connection lets you access the Internet and, by extension, social media by concealing your IP address. With the help of VPN services, you can even change your virtual location.
However, this could lead to more data consumption, which in turn leads to bigger expenses.
Following the new law, a Ugandan tech company has filed a lawsuit against the government accusing it of breaching the principles of Net neutrality. The protestors want the government to take their decision back and repeal the social media tax.
Such restrictions are not new
Whether the government repeals the newly implemented social media tax remains to be seen, yet there are various ways that the authorities could make its citizens pay the tax. Blocking VPN services is one of the possible solutions.
While it seems like an extreme step, such strict regulations have already been implemented in China. Recently, China even banned Hip-Hop culture and asked Wang Hao, a prominent singer, to apologize for his song ‘Christmas eve’.
Furthermore, China is currently working on a surveillance system which will rate its 1,4 billion citizens on the basis of their behavior and is expected to be rolled out by 2020. These ratings would then impact a person’s eligibility to buy a property or travel.
All in all, it would be interesting to see if the Ugandan government rolls back their decision or if other countries will follow in their footsteps. At the end of the day, it is critical to establish a balance between freedom of speech and a government’s proceedings.
What are your views on this? How far do you think it is okay to tax the social media usage?
Cover image credit: Town View Hotel in Lira, Uganda. Wikipedia Commons