Uganda plans to tax social media to stop gossip on Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter

Uganda’s internet tax
Uganda’s internet tax
Image: Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi
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Uganda is proposing a tax on social media use in a bid to curb gossip online and to raise billions of shillings in government revenue.

Starting July, president Yoweri Museveni’s government wants to charge a daily price of 200 Ugandan shillings ($0.05) to mobile phone subscribers using services including WhatsApp, Viber, Twitter, and Skype. The new measures come after Museveni reportedly wrote a letter to the treasury in March stating how idle talk on social media was costing the country much-needed time and income.

As part of the new levy, telecom companies providing data used for accessing over-the-top (OTT) networks will be liable to account and pay excise duty on the services. The finance ministry has already offered amendments to the 2014 Excise Duty Act and has sent the proposal to parliament for review following a cabinet approval. Finance minister Matia Kasaija also told Reuters the tax plan will help “maintain the security of the country and extend electricity so that you people can enjoy more of social media, more often, more frequently.”

Usually, the internet bundles that users buy gives them access to the internet so it’s not immediately clear how the government plans to tax subscribers for social media use or how they will know when one logs into say Facebook or Twitter. In practical terms it likely just means that every phone user with internet access on their device or bundle package will be taxed.

The measures could be drastic in a country where internet penetration stands at just 22%, as per the World Bank. The new costs could also be prohibitive: as of 2016, mobile data rates ranged from 249 shillings per day to 3,049,000 shillings every year, according to the Uganda Communications Commission. Social networks also constitute the internet for those already online, with Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter being the most popular apps.

If passed, the current measures will not be the first time officials instituted a plan to restrict digital access. In Feb. 2016, Uganda blocked Twitter and Facebook besides mobile money services during an election where president Museveni’s main opponent was placed under house arrest and observers dismissed the poll result as a sham. A few months later, the government bought an $88,000 pornography detecting machine in a bid to enforce morality and protect the nation’s cultural values.

Last June, the government-appointed Uganda Media Center announced it had established a monitoring unit that scans the profiles of social media users to find critical posts. In July, the Daily Monitor newspaper reported a deal with China for assistance on a comprehensive cyber-security strategy, including monitoring and preventing social media abuse. Last month, much in the footsteps of Tanzania, the government called for the registration of online content providers including streaming services.

The crackdown on digital access is also prescriptive of the government’s efforts to restrict digital activism and the awareness campaigns mobilizing for internet freedom. In a country where more than 70% of the population was born after Museveni came to power in 1986, social media has been a pivotal tool to demand the release of journalists and government critics.