Last week we published a report on the Uganda social media tax. To make a long story short, at the beginning of July 2018, Ugandans became subject to a 200 Ugandan shilling (roughly 5 cents) tax whenever they access social media sites. The government has claimed that the purpose of this tax was to curb “gossip” against the government – it says a lot that they thought this was a legitimate justification. Apparently, the Ugandan public thought so too, so they protested. Rather quickly, the “ThisTaxMustGo” movement was born and soon the government was forced to deal with vigorous demonstrations in addition to international media attention. Ugandans turned the heat up to the point where Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda finally stated that the bill would be revised and go back before the Parliament on 19 July.
A job well done, some might say. But one of the leaders of #ThisTaxMustGo, Silver Kayondo, disagrees. In his words, the tax, which has already caused a 75% decrease in social media usage (and an increase of 1500% in VPN downloads!), is likely to remain as it was. We spoke to Mr. Kayondo to find out more about the situation on the ground and what’s next for the movement:
Please introduce yourself for our readers and tell us a little bit about your involvement in the “ThisTaxMustGo” movement.
I am a lawyer and a General Partner at Ortus LLP, a tech, media, and telecommunications regulatory and transactional advisory firm based in Kampala. I am one of the Court Petitioners against the government’s social media tax, and one of the leaders of #ThisTaxMustGo.
How important is social media in the everyday lives of Ugandans?
Social media is important to Ugandans because it is a tool many use to express themselves, access information, and for communication. There is also a growing digital business and online innovation footprint by the young urban class.
In 2016, during the Presidential election, the Ugandan government blocked Twitter and Facebook. Now they have imposed a tax on all social media usage. Why do you think the government is targeting social media?
I think the government is targeting social media because it has offered a platform for growing criticism against the government. Having suffocated offline expression through a violent clampdown on protests, intimidation of traditional media houses, etc., much of this dissent has migrated online. So, this action by the government is an extension of the crackdown experienced offline.
#SocialMediaTax & #MobileMoneyTax are part of the wider ploy to keep Ugandan youth poor and hand-to-mouth, fighting for basic existential needs like food & rent so that they don’t pursue & question higher ideals eg politics, state of our economy, how the country is being run, etc
— Silver Kayondo (@SilverKayondo) July 6, 2018
You are fighting but the tax has already been in effect for a few weeks, how has it affected and is still affecting Uganda, its people and businesses?
The tax has led to a reduction in social media access. This has negatively impacted online businesses, dropping digital marketing revenues, etc. It has also suffocated other online services, whose traffic was driven by social media platforms.
Some industry data on implications of #SocialMediaTax is starting to show, two weeks after the tax was imposed
75% fall in social media use
Telcos reporting between 30%-50% reduction in capacity use
VPN downloads grew by about 1500%#ThisTaxMustGo
— Silver Kayondo (@SilverKayondo) July 13, 2018
How have people been coping with the tax? Are they paying it, avoiding it or not using social media at all?
Some people pay the tax, while the more tech-savvy ones use VPNs. (ed. Read our Best Free VPNs List)
— Davisthedoc (@Davisthedoc) July 7, 2018
The government says they will review the tax on July 19. Will they make amendments/renounce it? What’s going to happen next if you lose this fight?
I think the government will only make an amendment to the mobile money tax and reduce the rate to 0.5%. The social media tax will most likely remain intact. We shall go ahead with our Court case challenging it, and if we lose, we shall appear before the Supreme Court. We are also suggesting alternative proposals to the government ex: taxation of OTT revenues.
The Ugandan government has already asked China for assistance in monitoring social media. This social media tax is only a small part of their “master plan/strategy”?
Yes, we see a lot of Chinese influence. The tax is a gagging tax. There will also be massive surveillance. In the past, the government has written to social media companies like Facebook, asking for identity disclosures of some users, but the companies declined. Under this new system, there will be traceability of users because the OTT tax is paid via individual mobile money wallets.
How do you think the online community can help Ugandans and other nations who face internet restrictions/bans/taxes?
I think the online community can help by putting a freeze on government social media accounts until the government commits to respecting citizens’ digital rights. The government uses social media to announce the abuse of citizens’ social media rights! The digital community can also support our Court case through crowdfunding, etc. Then there is the provision of VPNs for those not interested in paying the tax (this is being done through free VPNs). The bigger players like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc can also engage the government directly and explain how they make their revenue and offer tax proposals to the government through explaining the implications of end-user taxation in a country with low levels of internet penetration, high levels of digital separation, and high internet costs.
For the sake of the Ugandan people, we hope that Mr. Kayondo is wrong and the government will not pursue the social media tax any further. Alas, the world doesn’t much care about our hopes and dreams nowadays, so let’s get ready for a fight! There are a few things you can do to help. Firstly, #ThisTaxMustGo has a crowdfunding campaign you can donate to and help challenge Uganda social media tax in court. Secondly, if you’re in Uganda, don’t give up your online freedom! There are tools that will help you keep it despite any measures the government takes!
The first thing you should do is get a good VPN. While we tend to emphasize that free VPN services aren’t the best choice, it is understandable that many in Uganda don’t have the luxury of paying. Here we have a list of good free VPN services you can trust. However, if you can afford it, try one of these best overall VPN services.
If you’d like to ask us a question about VPN services or other ways to bypass censorship, leave a comment and we’ll answer as quickly as possible!