Why Uganda’s Government Should Take a Different Path to Social Media and Mobile Money Taxation

Statement |
There has been widespread concern over newly introduced levies on social media access and mobile money transactions in Uganda, which are widely considered a threat to internet access and affordability, as well as to freedom of expression and access to information. The effects of the taxes that took effect on July 1, 2018, were the focus of discussions at a recent stakeholder dialogue  organised by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and the Internet Society Uganda Chapter.
At the dialogue, entrepreneurs, journalists, lawyers, activists, technologists, and academics shared their perspectives and experiences, resulting in a set of recommendations to the government on alternatives to the current modes of taxation.
The government says the taxes are needed so as  to expand the country’s tax base. In the 2018/2019 national budget speech, the finance ministry estimates that up to UGX 486 billion (USD 131 million) could be collected annually by 2022 from taxes on social media Over-The-Top (OTT) services.
However,   presenting early results on an ongoing study on the impact of the taxes, Dr. Christopher Stork of Research ICT Solutions stated that the country’s rural-based users of social media and mobile money will be hardest hit by the taxes, increasing the percentage of the unconnected and resulting in decreased revenue for telecom/ internet operators. He said this would ultimately lead to reduced growth in the gross domestic product (GDP) and hamper job creation.

Image above: Comparison of taxes against average income across regions in Uganda | Source:  Research ICT Solutions

Image above: Prepaid products user tax burdens | Source:  Research ICT Solutions
This study’s preliminary results affirm earlier contentions, such as by the After Access researchers, that those who marginally afforded internet services before the taxes were introduced are likely to now find internet use totally unaffordable, thereby increasing the percentage of the unconnected.
Meanwhile, Dr. Abdul Busuulwa, Executive Director at Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) Africa Network, said whereas social media and mobile money platforms had eased the lives of persons with disabilities (PWDs),However, the increased cost of accessing these platforms due to the new taxes had reversed these  gains. He said platforms like WhatsApp were helping in disseminating critical information among people with hearing difficulties before the added cost of using social media rendered them unaffordable to members of these groups, who he said already faced challenges in finding employment and often relied on financial support from others.
The impact of the taxes on the use of online platforms for civic engagement on local governance was described by Samuel Mumbere, ICT Officer at the Kasese District Local Government in Western Uganda. According to Mumbere, whereas introduction of the taxes had prompted a rise in the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) by community members who needed to maintain avenues of social accountability and access to information in the district, many were concerned about the additional costs related to data usage by some VPN products.
On the access to justice front, the online legal knowledge and support platform, Barefoot Law, was cited as a social media-based service that had enabled citizens to access legal support and services which the poor are often excluded from due to financial constraints. Such platforms are also threatened with reduced use by citizens due to the taxes.
Those in e-commerce cited barriers to accessing their clients, and reduced competitiveness of their products and services, due to the taxes. The Managing Director of Jumia Uganda noted that the company’s work with some 3,000 different sellers, 1,000 hotels, and over 200 restaurants had experienced strained operations as their operations relied greatly on social media.
Although the mobile money transactions tax is under review, with a new bill tabled before parliament proposing to reduce the tax from 1% to 0.5%, this does little to address the impact the tax will still have on financial inclusion. Feminist and writer, Edna Ninsiima, highlighted the role that mobile money has played in empowering unbanked women. She said the new transaction fees are affecting the financial independence of women – including building a savings culture – where it had been growing steadily.
Meanwhile, Kojo Boakye, Public Policy Manager, Access and Connectivity, Facebook, cited the counter impact of the taxation on digital dividends including efforts to extend connectivity and broadband penetration. He questioned the likelihood of the tax raising the projected revenue, adding that  the tax could also have an impact on the investment decisions of investors in infrastructure. In 2017, Facebook, in partnership with Airtel Uganda and Bandwidth and Cloud Services (BCS) Uganda announced  a USD 100 million project to lay nearly 800 km of fibre optic cable in north-western Uganda. Like Facebook, Google has also worked to extend connectivity in Uganda with infrastructure investments including a wifi project in the capital, Kampala.
Overall, participants at the dialogue pointed out that the taxes are not only discriminatory in nature but also disenfranchise already marginalised and vulnerable communities including PWDs, women, youth and rural communities. They called on the government to reassess its position on the taxes without inhibiting growth in ICT usage and innovation. The dialogue was also introspective with many noting that more proactive and collaborative efforts should be pursued by non-state actors, especially research and participating in consultative policy processes, to enhance informed decision-making by the government.

Using FIFAfrica17 Conversations To Drive Change

By Martha Chilongoshi |
The Africa I want is one that embraces diversity, promotes freedom of expression, values the right to information and prioritizes the elimination of all forms of discrimination on the basis of gender.
For my ideal Africa to be realized, actions, initiatives and conversations that challenge the status quo and disrupt structural systems which hinder development are very vital and this is what the Forum on Internet Freedom represents for me, an opportunity to meet like-minded people and share ideas as well as experiences on how to advance our societies for the better.
A communication for development professional like me finds great value in the Forum on Internet Freedom gatherings because it presents diverse opportunities for me to learn about the social, economic and political factors affecting internet access and usage in other countries in Africa and how I can apply lessons from there to address and solve prevailing issues in my own country – Zambia.
More importantly, the forum has deepened my knowledge on the role of the internet in the development agenda in that, I have been afforded the opportunity to meet my online community in an offline setting and build a support structure that offers solutions and coping strategies to challenges of internet shutdowns, restrictions on freedom of expression, women’s safety online, privacy and security among other things.
As a gender equality & human rights activist, I particularly enjoyed the session on “Finding equality in an age of discrimination online” with panelists, Emilar Gandhi (Facebook), Daniel Kigonya, (iFreedom Uganda), Caroline Tagny (CAL) and Fungai Machirori (APC). This was an important conversation for me because personally, I have committed to use my skills as a Journalist to create awareness and give prominence to issues that affect women and girls using social media and blogging platforms and in my experience, online spaces have not been spared from the patriarchal structures and attitudes that exist offline
Patriarchy has been defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary as;
– a social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan of the family
– the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line
– control by men of a disproportionately large share of power
With this in mind, it is not surprising that online spaces are being used to perpetuate the very inequalities that exist offline and policing how women and girls express themselves online, how they report violations and how they narrate their experiences. This is why the conversation on “Women’s safety online” by panellists, Francoise Mukuku (Si Jeunesse Savait DR Congo), Irene Kiwia (Tanzania Women of Achievement), Emilar Ghandi (Facebook) and Twasiima Patricia (Chapter Four Uganda) was also very key because it addressed the need to ensure women and girls are protected online and users of the Internet adhere to the set community standards and ideals that deter them from perpetuating abuse and discrimination.
I must add that apart from the panel discussions, I really enjoyed the personal conversations I had during tea and lunch breaks, one of my favourite discussions on the sidelines of the Forum was a conversation about feminism and gender equality with Tricia from Uganda and Tracey from Kenya. As the image below will show, we were so invested in the conversation and it was a brilliant, rich and empowering exchange of young women daring to stand up against structures and environments that perpetuate discrimination using online spaces.

Another key take away from these two sessions was the need to empower women and girls with information about their rights through access to the internet so they can recognise when those rights are being threatened or violated by another person. Often, women and girls are socialised and conditioned to think that they cannot make decisions without the approval of their male relations because from time in memorial, the power lies with men and women are constantly subjected to finding ways of not upsetting this hold on power and in effect remaining silent in the face of violence.
There are many progressive developments that online spaces have provided to ordinary people in terms of dealing with equality, freedom of expression and access to information. More people are now able to voice out on issues that affect them in real time and create a critical mass through social movements that have proved to be a force in challenging the powers that be. This has easily been evidenced by internet shutdowns by governments in Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Togo and Gambia among other countries.
This brings me to another conversation I found most intriguing at the forum themed “Privacy & Freedom of Expression” which was wonderfully moderated by Gbenga Sesan of Paradigm Initiative and featured panellists from state institutions namely James Mutandwa Madya (Ministry of ICT Postal and Courier Services Zimbabwe), Micheal Ilishebo (Zambia Police Service), Marian Shinn (MP, Parliament of South Africa) and Fortune Mgwili-Sibanda (Google).
For the last two years, my line of work has involved working on projects that are centred on democracy, good governance and civic participation especially during electoral processes and this particular conversation was key in understanding how state institutions view the internet and its power to connect people for social change. The conversation between the panellists and audience brought one thing to light, many African governments are threatened by the power that the internet gives to ordinary citizens and as a result, opt to shut it down in order to repress social movements that mobilise people towards an issue.
This can be proved by revisiting how the Zimbabwean government dealt with Evan Mawarire, a pastor whose social media movement dubbed #ThisFlag inspired thousands of Zimbabweans online and offline to demand for better conditions of living from their government. He had to flee his country because his family was no longer safe and when he eventually returned, he was immediately arrested and charged with “attempting to overthrow a constitutionally elected government”.
Another prominent case was that of Cameroon where the Internet was shut down for 3 months in the English speaking region of the country by the government. The shutdown caused hundreds of citizens to mobilise and find alternative means of accessing the internet and creating the hashtag #BringBackOurInternet to let the world know of the discrimination and suppression that was happening in Cameroon. Among the prominent Cameroonian voices that demanded for the restoration of the internet was the Forum’s keynote speaker, Rebecca Enonchong, Founder and CEO of Apps Tech who shared her experience on the impact of the internet shutdown on the rights and freedoms of Cameroonians and to a great extent, its impact on the economy.
If I have to sum up my experience at the forum on internet freedom 2017, I will say that it has given me a fresh and dynamic perspective of the internet, it has broadened my knowledge on the many ways I can use the internet as a tool and an enabler for my human rights activism and encourage civic participation in my community. It has also allowed me to see the economic impact that an internet shutdown can have on a country and for me, this is a great angle from which to advocate for an open, neutral and free internet.  I can’t wait for next year’s conversation!

Originally published on the Revolt For Her website

African Women's Safety Online in the Sustainable Development Goals Era

By Ashnah Kalemera |
On March 8, the world will commemorate International Women’s Day under the  theme  “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step it up for Gender Equality”. According to the United Nations, the theme is a reflection of the Sustainable Development Goals related to gender equality and empowerment of all girls and women. However, affronts to women’s rights over the years have leaped from the offline into the online arena.
An estimated one third of all women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime – mostly by an intimate partner. According to a 2015 report, the proliferation of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools such as mobile phones and social media platforms are fuelling digitally enabled violence against women (VAW). In particular, the ICT tools which are easily accessible facilitate abuse through enabling anonymity of the perpetrators who could be located anywhere and without physical contact with the victim.
In Europe, one in 10 women have been victims of cyber harassment, including having received unwanted, offensive sexually explicit emails or SMS messages, or unwarranted inappropriate advances on social networking sites.
In Africa, the extent of online VAW remains unknown, mostly due to inhibitions including a culture of silence, and lower levels of access to the internet and related technologies. However, cases of revenge pornography, cyber stalking and cyber bullying are becoming rampant. In many instances, these cases go unreported and victims have limited legal recourse or resources to  seek justice.
See for instance: Kenyan teenager commits suicide after a man she met through Facebook threatened to publish her nude photos; Online VAW victims in Uganda further subjected to threats of prosecution; and Blogging against an ex partner in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
During the 2015  Women’s Day Celebrations, there were calls for greater protections for women’s rights both online and offline. But many women remain uninformed of their rights online and are also unaware of the tools available to secure their online communications and information.
In commemoration of Safer Internet Day, popular social media service Facebook launched the first in a series of global roundtables to promote women’s safety online. Participants at the roundtable, which was held in Nairobi, Kenya, called for more research into the online VAW phenomenon in Africa and advocacy for laws which specifically address the vice. “Influencing policy on online violence against women requires evidence. Not only research but experiences,” noted one participant.
The availability of support mechanisms for victims was also emphasised with participants noting that offensive content takedowns “are not enough” and different kinds of responses were required depending on context. “First line responses need more capacity and awareness around technology. This should trickle down from intermediaries and service providers to law enforcement,” said another participant.
Meanwhile, consensus around definitions of the crimes including across diverse languages and colloquialisms must be agreed to inform advocacy and activism. It was recognised that online VAW is not “a new form” of violence against women, with participants noting that the online issues should be framed alongside issues of domestic violence and freedom of expression.
Furthermore, participants noted that women are not homogenous and efforts to address VAW both online and offline should be multi-lensed. In this regard, consideration should be made for class, ethnicity and religion, among other demographics. As noted at the 2015 Forum on Internet Freedom in East Africa, there are moral, cultural and legal distinctions of instances of violence against women in Africa, for instance genital mutilation.
The roundtable also called for more partnerships at local and international level between tech innovators and human rights organisations to develop tools and services that offer women protection against VAW.