This piece was written as part of Advox's partnership with the Small Media Foundation to bring you the UPROAR initiative, a collection of essays highlighting challenges in digital rights in countries undergoing the UN's Universal Periodic Review process.
In July 2023, the Ugandan parliament passed a digital services tax. The Income Tax Amendment Act 2023 imposes a 5 percent levy on the income earned in Uganda on digital services provided by non-resident companies such as Meta and Netflix.
Background of the law
In March 2023, Uganda’s finance ministry presented the Income Tax Amendment Act 2023 in parliament. The tax introduced a 5 percent tax on the income earned in Uganda by non-resident digital services companies such as Netflix, Amazon, Meta, Google, Apple and Microsoft, among others. Within the scope of the law, the affected digital services include: online advertising services, data services, and services facilitated through online marketplaces or intermediation platforms, such as accommodation, vehicle hire, and other transport-oriented platforms. In addition, digital content services are also included, and this implicates access to and downloading digital content, online gaming services, cloud computing services, and data warehousing.
Initially, the parliament rejected this tax, arguing that Uganda did not have the technical skillset to collect the taxes. There was also a concern that the impact of the tax would be borne by Ugandan end users of digital services. However, in June 2023, when the Tax Amendment Bill that excluded the digital tax was passed and sent to President Museveni for assent, he advised that it be reconsidered. He argued that the tax would be incurred entirely by the non-resident companies and its burden would not shift to end users of digital services in Uganda.
The concern about Ugandan end users paying the tax stems from the nature of previous digital taxes imposed in the country that had consequences for the digital economy and digital rights. Previously, in 2019, the government had introduced the social media tax on daily access to over-the-top services in Uganda, including social media. This tax, which was imposed within the context of the 2021 general election in the country, was aimed to curb dissent online, some activists argued. The social media tax caused a drop in internet subscriptions by about 2.5 million. In 2021, the government scrapped the social media tax and introduced a 12 percent excise levy on internet data, adding to the existing 18 percent value added tax on the same purchase.
CIPESA, a non-governmental organization, submitted comments to the Parliament of Uganda, proposing that the digital services tax be dropped and wide consultations on the tax as well as its impact be conducted. CIPESA recommended that the government enact progressive policies aimed at improving the accessibility and utilization of digital tools and services, including initiatives like tax incentives that typically result in reduced costs for consumers.
It particularly expressed concerns that the tax would hinder the inclusive use of digital technologies by groups such as people with disabilities and rural communities. Part of the statement read, ‘’The enjoyment of digital rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, access to information, and association, could also be limited by the imposition of high digital taxes.’’
Implications of the law for digital freedoms
Opposition members of Parliament expressed fears that the digital services tax could restrict access to social media and suppress freedom of speech, especially given the government’s unfriendly perception of digital activism. These fears were allayed by reassurances that the tax would be incurred by the non-resident digital services companies and not their users.
If the trend of digital services taxes continues, then corporations may begin to pass the taxes on to their users in Africa. Digital services such as Apple are already passing on taxes to their users through increased prices of their products in Turkey, Chile, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico. Increases in prices of digital services would, no doubt, affect freedom of expression online, considering that seeking and receiving information are integral aspects of this right.
Uganda’s government already has a somewhat complicated relationship with digital services companies. About two years ago, Meta deleted the Facebook accounts of officials from the ruling National Resistance Movement, claiming that they were used to manipulate the 2021 election in Uganda. The government has since shut access to the social media platform and talks between the two entities have stalled. Similarly, in 2020, the government of Uganda asked YouTube to shut down opposition accounts. YouTube declined, requesting a court order to that effect.
Patricia Namakula, director of research at the Center for Multilateral Affairs, told Global Voices:
The Income Tax (Amendment) Bill, 2023 may make the social media firms react by charging Ugandans for services that are currently free, this will have a direct impact on access to these platforms as many Ugandans (especially women and PWDs) will be pushed offline because they are already disadvantaged in terms of affordability and access. Once offline, people’s ability to enjoy digital rights and freedoms is hindered. This will widen the digital divide by limiting inclusive access and use of digital technologies.
Trend of similar taxes
Several African countries have digital services taxes in force. Uganda joins Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Tunisia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania on this list. In contrast to Uganda’s 5 percent, Kenya’s digital services tax rate is 1.5 percent and the tax raised revenue of USD 1.6 million in its first year. The government of Uganda expects to raise at least USD 1.3 million annually from the tax. In Uganda’s case, this is much needed revenue to contribute to funding the national budget, which is presently significantly funded by debt. Uganda’s debt to GDP ratio was predicted to rise to 53 percent, above the 50 percent threshold set by the World Bank. This implies that Uganda’s public debt could become unsustainable, yet public officials continuously engage in corrupt practices and extravagance using public funds, neglecting social services. Sections of Ugandans feel over taxed, with little value from the state in the form of social services.
This Government is obsessed with milking cows they don't feed! This Ministry is the same one incharge of ensuring skilled drivers are licenced to drive but we all know how that is going! Let's be serious for once! https://t.co/PkdFIkGrja
— Mwesigye Samantha (@scamwesigye2) September 30, 2023
In conclusion, Uganda’s digital services tax is an important step towards generating much needed additional government revenue. While the government has given assurances that the end users will not bear the burden of the tax, how digital services companies respond to the tax will determine this tax burden. Nevertheless, the tax will still impact digital inclusivity for already disadvantaged groups of people. Overall, it is crucial that such policies strike the delicate balance between government revenue generation, and digital rights and freedoms in Uganda.