Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni wants social media users to suffer the consequences of their gossip — and to bolster the national budget at the same time.
In early April 2018, Museveni directed the Ministry of Finance to introduce taxes on “over the top” communication platforms (OTTs) such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp.
In Museveni's view, social media users use these platforms for what he called ‘lugambo’ (meaning gossip in Lugwere). In a statement quoted by The Daily Monitor, Musveni explained his position:
I am not going to propose a tax on internet use for educational, research or reference purposes… these must remain free. However, lugambo on social media (opinions, prejudices, insults, friendly chats) and advertisements by Google and I do not know who else must pay tax because we need resources to cope with the consequences of their lugambo…
The president accused the Finance Ministry and Uganda Revenue Authority of not working hard enough to identify new sources of taxes, lamenting that the government currently lacks tax income.
The government's attention to “over-the-top” applications raises a long-standing issue that many governments have taken with IP-based (Internet Protocol) communication applications, such as WhatsApp, which are free of charge for any person with internet access. Government actors (in Uganda and many other countries) have long voiced concern about losses in revenue for national telecom operators that were once the primary providers (and cost beneficiaries) of these services.
Museveni assures citizens that this tax will not affect those who use the internet for educational purposes, arguing that it will only affect those who spend time online engaging in idle gossip.
In an opinion piece for The Daily Monitor, Daniel Bill Opio called the social media tax “regressive”:
Social media being a widely used platform for communication, and most importantly as means to access of information, imposing of taxes thereon will be an impediment to the enjoyment of various rights.
Indeed, officials have offered no information about how (or by whom) social media content will be judged for its quality. If gossip or rumors take a political tone, could this lead to taxation or even indirect censorship of political criticism?
Netizens have also expressed doubts about the economic rationale behind the proposal. Democratic Party President Norbert Mao wrote on his Facebook page:
At a time when other countries are cutting the costs of internet, President Museveni wants to increase its cost. We actually need to aspire to making internet free.
Some are questioning whether these taxes will truly benefit Ugandans or if they will be used for Museveni's personal gains, as has been alleged in the past:
Uganda wants to profit where it did not invest. Social media owners gave it out for free and you wanna tax it? Is it an opportunity to increase revenue, avoiding transparency or just GREED?!!
— Trish (@trish886) April 9, 2018
The fact that social media was blocked twice on election day in Uganda on February 18, 2016, and during the swearing in of the president in May 2016 discourages poet and human rights lawyer Kizza Ebron:
The proposal to tax social has a bothersome background.
Government of Uganda has blocked social media twice in the past.
— KIIZA ERON (@kiizaeron) April 8, 2018
Eron goes on to compare social media to a public highway:
Social media is a high way. The proposed tax on social media use is a military road block.
Don't remind us those days…
— KIIZA ERON (@kiizaeron) April 8, 2018
Kyambadde Ronald, a health and social justice advocate, tweets:
The government of Uganda should at some point understand that the citizens are not gold mines, which they'll exploit vehemently, how on earth can you justify, the ongoing saga of new taxes- social media tax, banking tax etc? We've had enough of your injustices#socialjustice
— Kyambadde Ronald (@KyambaddeRonal6) April 8, 2018
Internet World Stats reports that Uganda currently has about 19 million internet subscribers, with 43 percent of the population online. The move to tax social media users could increase the digital gap if cost barriers rise.
This is only one way in which spaces for civic engagement are shrinking in Uganda. A January 2018 report from Unwanted Witness, a Ugandan NGO, painted a dim picture for free expression online in Uganda:
2017 registered the highest number of Ugandans ever arrested for their online expression and these arrests are clearly targeted crackdown on free flow of information and speech on the Internet.
In March 2018, the Uganda Communications Commission put out a directive to all online content creators to register their websites, creating yet another barrier to free expression online. The directive read:
All online data communication service providers, including online publishers, online news platforms, online radio and television operators are therefore, advised to apply and obtain authorisation from the Commission with immediate effect.
As of now, it is still not clear how the “gossip tax” will be implemented or monitored, or when it will take effect.