At the start of July, the African nation of Uganda made headlines by introducing a tax on social media. The move has been messy and unpopular, but that hasn’t stopped some other countries on the continent following suit.
Street protests in the Ugandan capital Kampala, along with the fact that residents were able to circumvent the charge by using an IP blocking tool anyway, prompted the government to review the tax within weeks of its introduction. President Yoweri Museveni stuck to his guns, however, and the tax remains in place. Not only that, but at least two of Uganda’s continental neighbours appear to have taken inspiration from its controversial idea.
Last month, Zambia introduced a daily tax of 30 ngwee per day on many forms of internet communication, such as WhatsApp, Skype and Facebook Messenger. The Southern African country has not gone as far as Uganda in putting all social media behind a paywall, but says it wants to protect the Zambian telecommunications industry. The tax equates to a little more than 2p per day, but with some Zambians on very low income, this seemingly small amount could well stifle communication.
Earlier this week, in what it describes as a “stupid move”, Face2FaceAfrica.com reported that the idea of internet tax has also spread to West Africa, with Benin having now passed a law to charge five Central African francs for every megabyte used on social media apps. With one franc equivalent to 0.14 of a penny, this tax could soon rack up for heavy users of apps.
Benin does not appear to have given an official reason for its decision, but it appears that reasons why African nations are taxing social media vary from one to another. While Zambia argues that it wants the money to go back into its own telecommunications, Uganda’s reason is more authoritative, with President Museveni concerned that people are “lying” on social media.
It remains to be seen whether more countries in Africa will start to levy charges on social media use, but all the evidence suggests that they are losing out by doing so. Describing Uganda’s tax as “regressive”, ICT Solutions has estimated that the move may cost its economy as much as $750m (£575m) just in 2018. Similarly, French organisation Internet Sans Frontières has accused the Beninese government of contradicting its own connectivity ambitions.
It appears that Uganda, Zambia and Benin need to decide why they are really introducing these charges, and come to a decision over whether what is undeniably a step backwards in digital advancement is really worth taking.