Until recently, history seemed to be moving steadily in the direction of free information, as the internet permeated every aspect of life across the globe. But in the past year or two, this progress has started to stall, with developments like threats to Net Neutrality and doubts about web surveillance.
But nowhere has this reversal been as clear as in the central African country of Uganda. If you haven’t heard already, the government in Kampala has imposed a radical new tax which specifically targets social media users.
So, if you’re in Uganda and want to connect to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or even WhatsApp, you’ll have to pay a charge every time you access those sites. The amount at first will be 200 Ugandan shillings (roughly 5 cents), which is a lot of money in a country where the average income is just over $600.
But why did the government take such a drastic step? Well, it wasn’t imposed simply to fund hospitals, roads or schools. Instead, the taxes are part of an authoritarian creep in the country. As head of state Yoweri Museveni put it earlier in 2018, the taxes would serve to curb “gossip” against the government.
Museveni’s intervention followed the success of political outsiders like Bobi Wine, a popular musician who entered the country’s parliament after a vibrant social media-based campaign.
In a nation of 40 million people, where 40 percent of people use social media regularly, the stakes are high, and there’s no mystery why a government which stifles dissent would be keen to clamp down on the flow of information.
The world’s response
As you might expect, Ugandans and their allies across the world haven’t taken Museveni’s plans well. The local tech company CyberLine has launched a lawsuit in the country, charging the law with contravening Net Neutrality.
Human rights campaigners have also been quick to argue that the laws have little to do with raising revenue. As lawyer Nicholas Opiyo puts it, the tax is “a new tool of stifling free expression and citizen organizing that has been beyond the control of the state.”
Others have tried to take it to the streets to protest against the tax (and the tax on mobile financial transactions which was also part of the bill). The “This Tax Must Go” movement quickly arose and organized massive, violent protests on 11 July.
Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda now says the bill will be changed in response to the “concerns of the public”. It is due to be presented before parliament on 19 July.
Opponents of the tax argue that the law was illegitimate, having been passed by parliament without the required number of “ayes” from assembled MPs. And Ugandans from all walks of life charge that the law has been poorly thought through by its framers.
This lack of preparation was clear from Museveni’s handling of the financial transactions tax. Initially, this was meant to include 1 percent of mobile transactions, but this was swiftly revised to 0.5 percent following a public outcry. Ugandans sense that there may be scope to resist both laws, and are taking action in response.
How the Uganda’s internet tax has resulted in a war against VPNs
A key part of the mobilization against the tax has involved encouraging ordinary Ugandans to find ways to get around the Uganda social media tax. As Bobi Wine put it, people should “use other means to stay on social media other than pay the tax”. So how can this be done?
As soon as the tax was passed, technologically savvy Ugandans knew that VPNs would be a crucial part of their response as Virtual Private Networks can theoretically hide users’ identities, preventing authorities from taxing them.
There was a rush for VPN servers in Uganda following the law’s passing. However, this hasn’t solved the problem. Security and tax officials in Uganda can block VPN services which cater for tax avoiders, and the country’s Communications Commission has ordered ISPs to prevent VPNs used for this purpose from using their servers.
With this VPN ban Uganda has joined illiberal governments like China in blacklisting security tools for ordinary users. But they haven’t totally blocked off ways to escape the social media tax.
How to beat Uganda’s social media tax safely
While Kampala has blocked many VPN servers in Uganda, there are still VPNs which can help users get online without giving into the government. The government is basically blocking VPNs on a case by case basis, and as there are so many VPN services around, finding a Uganda VPN that works isn’t that hard.
For instance, services that should still work fine include:
Most of them have sophisticated encryption and networks which span the world, so shutting them down is a challenge for any government.
Some VPN companies have even responded by offering discounts for Ugandan users, effectively challenging officials in Kampala to up their game. However, it’s important to note that many VPNs have been taken down successfully. The ones that remain are fighting hard to protect their users and keep traffic flowing freely across Uganda’s borders.
Even if you aren’t in Uganda right now, this is an important story. Governments beyond Africa are looking at Uganda to see whether tax clampdowns are feasible. And VPN operators are hoping that their systems can weather this storm. So when officials in Uganda block VPN services, everyone should take notice: online security and freedom is a worldwide issue, and we’re all fighting on the same team.