Sabel, a gay man living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, uses pseudonyms to engage with other LGBTQ+ people online. Despite feeling somewhat anonymous, the fear of being arrested is ever-present.

“Online, we are free to express our identities under anonymous names, but people have and are still being arrested, so a Virtual Private Network (VPN) provides an extra layer of security,” he says.

VPNs create secure and encrypted internet connections that enhance online privacy, bypass geographical restrictions, and secure data transmission, making them a valuable tool for individuals and businesses seeking a safe online environment.

Engaging with partners and building relationships within the LGBTQ+ community through platforms like the Telegram channel provides Sabel with freedom and solidarity. Nonetheless, he remains cautious and expresses worries about the dangers of openly discussing his sexual orientation on various social media sites.

“I do not use other social media platforms to express my sexuality. Telegram is a relatively secure platform,” he explains.

However, this avenue of expression for Sabel and other members of the LGBTQ+ community is under threat.

On October 13, 2023, an announcement was made that affected Tanzania’s digital realm and the privacy of its LGBTQ+ community. This was when the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) released a statement stipulating that VPN users must register their usage. Intensifying the urgency of the situation, the announcement carried a pressing deadline of October 30, 2023, as the final call for individuals and businesses to discontinue using unregistered VPNs. The TCRA also introduced an online form for submitting VPN details.

The statement triggered concerns among various online communities, particularly those who sought privacy for reasons beyond routine cybersecurity.

“My privacy matters. Whether I am online or offline, it is guaranteed by the constitution of Tanzania,” Sabel says.

Sections 13 and 14 of the Cyber Crimes Act 2015 mention pornography as illegal content. According to the then deputy minister of constitutional and legal affairs, Pauline Gekul, homosexuality is prohibited by Section 154 of the Tanzania Penal Code. Addressing the parliament on April 17, 2023, the minister of information, communication and information technology, Nape Nnaye, said that in the fight against those promoting same-sex relationships, 334 websites, 361 Facebook accounts, 198 Instagram accounts, 12 Twitter accounts, and more than 2,456 domains have been shut down.

Opponents of the TCRA’s new VPN registration requirement argue that it threatens freedom of expression and other rights enshrined in Tanzania’s Constitution.

Sabel, who has been using free VPNs, wonders why he must register himself as a user. “I think this is targeted to us [LGBTQ+ people]; it seems like privacy is not for us,” he said.

Under the new rules, unregistered VPN usage may result in a fine of not less than TZS 5,000,000 (USD 1,933) and imprisonment of not less than two or more years, or both.

At the heart of this matter lie crucial issues surrounding digital rights and LGBTQ+ people’s ability to access banned content.

“The registration requirement is like a hidden ban, as I do not think any LGBTQ+ person can go and register,” said Tamba, a gay man who lives in Dar es Salaam.

In 2022, Tamba experienced anal health concerns but did not go to the hospital for fear that he would be arrested or mocked.

“It is on LGBTQ+ websites that we get to know if such problems are common to bottom gays, but those sites are banned in Tanzania. Only VPNs can make them accessible,” he explained.

Sabel also talked about several people who were arrested for their online activities. “It is just people who express themselves that are arrested.” One of the risks that LGBTQ+ people face online is their security being compromised and their private affairs reaching the public. Sabel explains that many people have been victims of Mange Kimambi, a social media influencer who frequently exposes people’s private affairs, especially celebrities, on her app.

“Not only from the state, but another risk we are facing are people who are using our identities to make money,” Sabel says. ” To get updates from the Mange Kimambi, the App demands a subscription fee. So many things get leaked, from videos to private conversations,” he added.

The Tanzania Digital Rights Coalition (TDRC) strongly condemned the TCRA’s new VPN rules in a statement issued on October 14, 2023. The coalition said the move threatens freedom of expression, privacy, and economic opportunities. “We firmly believe that the right to access information, maintain privacy, and express oneself freely on the internet is fundamental to a democratic and inclusive society.”

“VPNs play a pivotal role in safeguarding users against cyber threats, unauthorized surveillance, and data breaches,” the statement read. “Limiting their use threatens the personal and data security of Tanzanian citizens, making them vulnerable to surveillance and potential cyberattacks.”

TDRC also urged the authorities to respect and protect the rights of Tanzanian citizens to access information, communicate securely, and express themselves freely online. “We remain committed to promoting a free, open, and secure digital environment for all Tanzanian citizens.”

We firmly believe that the right to access information, maintain privacy, and express oneself freely on the internet is fundamental to a democratic and inclusive society

“VPN provides us a more secure layer to be free online, following what is done to LGBTQ people in this country; the registration is nothing but a way to identify us,” Sabel opined.  According to him, it will not be possible to sue the government to nullify the statement.

“Our hope is on international organisations,” Sabel says. He believes international organisations can make the country stop using specific laws either by limiting the amount of aid or blacklisting the people in power.