Uganda – a failed experiment in taxing social media?

Posted on July 18, 2018


July has been a crazy month for internet users in Uganda, where a social media tax introduced at the start of the month could be phased out by the end of this week after mass protests.

As of July 1st, Ugandans have had to pay a daily fee of 200 shillings (4p) to access platforms like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat and anything else the country’s government considers to be an ‘OTT service’, some examples of which are given in this guide.

The reasons given for the introduction of this tax appear flaky at best – indeed, point 6 of the guide answers the question “why do I have to pay the OTT tax?” with “to be able to use the OTT services” – a circular argument that equates to little more than “because we say so”.

Officially, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni cites “moral reasons” for the introduction of the tax. In a statement, Museveni blames social media users for “chatting or even lying” without giving anything back to the country, and wants a “modest contribution” to go toward the country’s budget for this financial year.

However, in a country where the average resident lives on less than a pound a day, a monthly fee of around £1.20 quickly appears not so “modest”, and many citizens of the East African country see this merely as an attempt to stifle opposition to President Museveni in a nation with a poor human rights record.

Tomorrow, less than three weeks after its introduction, the tax could be scrapped, with an amendment to the bill being passed to Ugandan parliament, so what has caused this apparent change of heart?

Violent protests

Last Wednesday saw clashes between protesters and police officers in Ugandan capital Kampala, resulting in two arrests and the use of tear gas. The protests were led by Bobi Wine, a Ugandan musician turned politician who has been a vociferous opponent of the tax.

People are ignoring the tax anyway

The Ugandan government has also learned that the internet is very difficult to police in the way it wants to. By simply installing virtual private network (VPN) software on their phones, Ugandans have been able to bypass the paywall and access social media sites from wherever the VPN is located.

Overall, even in underdeveloped nations, the internet and social media is too advanced and intrinsic to lifestyles to be restricted in this way, and Uganda’s likely retraction of this tax should act as a reminder that governments and politicians need to engage with social media rather than shut it down.

In 2016, President Museveni did not take kindly to being called a “pair of buttocks” by an academic activist. Again, it seems that the Ugandan public has refused to turn the other cheek.

Content Team Leader at Engage Web
John works for Engage Web as a Content Team Leader and regularly contributes to the website and programmes of his beloved Chester F.C.
John Murray
  • […] 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 […]

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