If You Charge People to Tweet, They’ll Revolt in the Street

Uganda’s social media tax is just another way for the government to crack down on dissent.

Photo: Isaac Kasamani/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Isaac Kasamani/AFP/Getty Images

At midnight on July 1, Hamza Kwehangana was eating a late dinner alone in his room on the east side of Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. He decided to send a message to his buddy. He picked up his phone, opened WhatsApp, typed out a text, and tapped the small blue “send” button.

The message bounced back.

Kwehangana tapped “send” again. The message for him, and for millions across the country, bounced back again. From that moment forward, everyone in Uganda would have to pay the government to send any messages on WhatsApp.

The government of Uganda slapped a tax on 58 different social media services, including WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, Google Hangouts, Uber, Tinder, Instagram, and Skype. The tax came into effect after Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni blamed social media sites for the spread of “gossip” and “fake news.” The tax charges 200 shillings ($0.05) per day for social media use — which is not insignificant in a country where about 25 percent of the population lives under the poverty line (defined as less than $1.25 a day, about 4,500 shillings).

President Museveni claims he is trying to get Ugandans off their phones and back to work. “Social-media use is definitely a luxury item,” Museveni wrote in a blog post defending the tax, in which he compares the social media tax to taxes on other vices, like beer and cigarettes, that deter productivity. According to the president, social media should be restricted to those with disposable income and time for leisure activities.

But the reality is, President Museveni has a track record of censoring online content that’s critical of him and his regime. A journalist was arrested in November 2016 for circulating photos of a police raid in a WhatsApp group. In December 2016, the chairperson of the opposition party was arrested for posting a picture on Facebook that showed President Museveni photoshopped into a coffin. And in April 2017, an academic at Makerere University was arrested for a post on Facebook in which she called the President “a pair of buttocks” and his wife “empty-brained.” The government blocked access to social media during the 2011 and 2016 elections, when the hashtag #1986pictures went viral, highlighting how much has changed since Museveni was first elected in 1986.

The tax on social media came soon after after the pop-star-turned-politician Bobi Wine used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to criticize the incumbent administration and win a seat in Parliament for the opposition party.

The outcry was swift and fierce. Twitter exploded in the hours after the tax went into effect, with people rallying behind #NoSocialMediaTax and #ThisTaxMustGo hashtags, paying the government to express their outrage with the government. Those who wanted to show some tech-savvy resistance started using VPNs to bypass the tax (although the government is now threatening to crack down on those as well). Civil rights activists called out the tax as an assault on free speech.

“By making people pay for using these platforms, this tax will render these avenues of communication inaccessible for low-income earners, robbing many people of their right to freedom of expression, with a chilling effect on other human rights,” says Amnesty International’s Joan Nyanyuki in a statement on the organization’s website. “This is a clear attempt to silence dissent, in the guise of raising government revenues.”

On July 11, protesters spilled offline and into the streets. Bobi Wine led a rally protesting the tax in the streets of Kampala. President Museveni’s security forces fired bullets and tear gas into the crowd to try to disperse the protests. Bobi Wine had succeeded in fomenting political dissent online, which is exactly what Museveni was trying to discourage with the tax in the first place.

The social media tax has brought the generational chasm between the rulers and the ruled of Uganda into stark relief. President Museveni is 73 years old and shows no sign of stepping down. He’s been president for the last 32 years, first abolishing the presidential term limit and then the age limit, which would have required him to retire at 75. The median age of his cabinet ministers is 65.

By contrast, Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world. 78 percent of its population is under 30. Youth (15-24) unemployment is hovering around 70 percent. When this demographic majority looks to the government, they see a gerontocracy that doesn’t represent them or understand their problems. Social media, by contrast, has provided an outlet for them to conduct business, get an education, engage in politics, and tap into global communication networks.

Now the techno-savvy millennials of Kampala are meeting life under taxation with a mix of resistance, resignation, and new ideas for the future.

Hamza Kwehangana in his office
Hamza Kwehangana in his office Photo: Courtesy of Hamza Kwehangana

The Techie

Kwehangana was surprised when the social media tax actually went into effect on July 1. The government had said it was coming, but it was unclear when and how the roll-out would happen. On that first night, Kwehangana went ahead and topped up his Mobile Money account to pay the tax, but the silence on his WhatsApp group chats was palpable.

“The day before the social media tax was put into effect, you’re enjoying WhatsApp, connecting with buddies, sending memes. The groups were so active,” says Kwehangana. “The next day, the groups were mute.”

As the 23-year-old co-founder of a digital marketing startup, Kwehangana lives a lot of his life on the internet. He’s a bit shy, with an easy laugh, and infectiously enthusiastic about his work. Clients pay Kwehangana to design their websites and manage their digital marketing on social media — mainly Facebook and Twitter.

He also runs a popular tech blog on the side, called “Go Tech UG,” where he posts multiple times a week and gets about 10,000 visits a month. Soon after the social media tax went into effect, he wrote a post guiding readers through the process of installing a free VPN called Psiphon.

Post-tax, Kwehangana has seen the numbers of people he’s able to reach over social media decrease. That’s bad for his business. But perhaps the most annoying consequence of the tax is that anytime Kwehangana wants to get on social media, he has to drive 23 kilometers to get to his office. That can become a one-and-a-half-hour journey if he’s stuck in a car during rush hour, which is why Kwehangana chooses to go by bike.

That’s because Kwehangana is willing to pay the social media tax on his company’s data plan, but it’s not worth it to him to pay the tax a second time for his personal plan. Kwehangana finds the inability to pay the tax once for all of the data plans linked to his name to be the most frustrating part of his new reality. Even though he’s paying, he doesn’t get access to social media outside the office.

“The fact is, I no longer have social media on the go,” he says. “If there’s one thing our government should have done, it’s never to tax social media.”

For Kwehangana, social media is more than a source of livelihood.

“When I was growing up as Hamza, I experienced moments where I didn’t have a place to express myself as an individual, as a person, as who I am,” he says. “I find platforms like social media platforms, blogging platforms, as a place whereby someone like me can find refuge.”

He still believes in the digital dream. He’s trying to expand the business, not only in Uganda but also abroad. Right now he has international clients, in countries including Austria, Nigeria, and Canada. He can’t afford to let his business get derailed by the government’s policies, or the disruption that’s followed. The city of Kampala shut down the day that Bobi Wine returned to Uganda after his recovery in the U.S. No one was working. If Kwehangana lets this kind of unrest affect his productivity, they’ll take their business elsewhere.

The Journalist

On a warm evening in late July, Kwehangana joined about 20 other bloggers on the terrace of Ibamba Restaurant at the Uganda Museum. It was the monthly Bloggers’ Happy Hour. The theme of this month’s meetup was the social media tax and how it had impacted digital content creators. One of the speakers was Ruth Aine, a 32-year-old freelance blogger and journalist.

Aine doesn’t mince words. She describes the tax as a “very badly thought-out, badly communicated, and badly executed tax law.”

Aine is quick to point out the number of ways the government has botched the tax implementation. The tax is meant to be a daily or weekly tax on individual end users. But it doesn’t operate that way.

“If you top up daily, it expires at midnight regardless of whether it was bought at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m.,” she says, reiterating Kwehangana’s complaint. “Most people are now available on social media during office hours because they are using the office Wi-Fi.”

Aine also draws attention to the tax payment method, which she describes as impractical and discriminatory. The law makes it so that people have to pay the tax through a service called Mobile Money. The government instituted a tax on Mobile Money at the same time that it implemented the one on social media. So now people are paying a tax both on the services and on the method of paying the tax.

The tax on Mobile Money affects low-income and high-income Ugandans alike. The low-income are further boxed out of services, while the thriving Mobile Money sector is suffering financial losses.

A screenshot of the Mobile Money app showing the social media tax.

The invention of Mobile Money has been revolutionary in Uganda and across eastern Africa.  In a largely cash-based economy, it lets people pay for goods and services in cash using their phones. People are citing Mobile Money as a way in which African countries are “leapfrogging” forward in the digital economy. In the past decade, registered Mobile Money customers have grown to over 22 million. It has facilitated the flow of 63 trillion shillings ($16.3 billion) across the country and given millions of Ugandans access to formal financial services.

For Museveni’s opposition, the tax on Mobile Money is symbolic of a government that prioritizes short-term greed over long-term growth.

Aine is focused on how the tax will affect online communities that use social media as a forum to support each other and raise money for local causes. In a recent blog post, she wrote about a Facebook group called Cake Shop Uganda. It’s a private group with 88,871 members that connects cake bakers with people who want to buy cakes. Their group description reads:

Cake, Bread & supplies.

Everything concerning baking ….

Let the consumer, supplier and producer meet. We combine our point of view. The voices will be heard.

Aine highlights the group’s success as an online marketplace, but also its role as a forum for raising money for different causes. She describes the group’s recent campaign to raise 100 million shillings ($25,874) to buy an ambulance for a mental health institute in the suburbs of Kampala. Within a month, they had collected 10 million shillings ($2,587) via Mobile Money donations.

“The Facebook group that brought together members to contribute to a cause is no longer going to be able to do that because one has to factor in the tax before engaging in such a drive,” she writes. “And the truth is, it makes it expensive.”

Cake Shop Uganda is still active — they recently held a drive to deliver six cakes and groceries to a children’s home in Kisenyi — but their tools for raising and donating money are no longer free.

Aine is keeping her fingers crossed that the tax gets repealed. She’s closely following a petition that just went to court to strike down the tax on a constitutional basis. “The internet has given us all  a voice,” she says. “It’s only fair that we avail it to everyone at no extra cost or charge.”

The Lawyer and the Laws

As one of the five signatories to the petition, 27-year-old lawyer Silver Kayondo is aware that all eyes are on him. “People look up to me for leadership that I must provide,” he says. Then he chuckles. “Yet I have no title.”

Kayondo has joined forces with a cyber law non-profit to sue the government of Uganda over the social media tax. “We attacked the Uganda Revenue Authority because we are seeking a restraining order against collection of the tax by the revenue body,” says Kayondo. “But we also want the regulators to enact regulations (UCC) that are compliant with Net Neutrality. No more OTT sites and internet blockages and throttling.”

Right now Kayondo is trying to raise funds for the lawsuit, which the petitioners are paying for out of pocket.

“I don’t think tech should be a luxury for the few who can afford,” says Kayondo. “Mobile phones were introduced [when] I was about 8 years old. I’ve seen how tech has transformed life, I’ve seen the empowerment.”

Kayondo grew up in a small town in the west of Uganda, next to a snow-capped mountain on the Equator. He is unwavering in his assertion that the internet has been a positive force in his life. He’s an avid consumer of foreign media and he uses Mobile Money to send money to his extended relatives — a crucial service for many Ugandans who need to send cash to relatives who live far away.

Kayondo’s views on the role of the internet have been shaped by the connections he’s been able make in a more connected world, both on and offline. After law school, Kayondo went to grad school in South Africa. He received scholarships to travel to the U.S., where he fell madly in love with Chipotle burritos and tried marshmallows for the first time. “I’m fully subscribed to the idea of global citizenship,” says Kayondo. “I’m part of a very blessed generation. During our life we’ve seen all these borders lose meaning.”

Now, Kayondo is committed to moving Uganda toward a brighter future, which he thinks involved embracing the digital. 2017 data from the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) show that 54 percent of the population has connection to the internet. These numbers have been steadily growing, thanks largely to the rise of mobile. But Kayondo fears that the social media tax will slow the growth.

“Social media in Uganda is sort of what really introduces people to the internet, it’s the onboarding procedure,” he says. “Most people know Facebook and WhatsApp, more than research sites. It really gives you that leapfrog effect.”

The “leapfrog effect” that Kayondo is referring to is a theory that, by skipping straight to a mobile internet infrastructure, Uganda and other African countries will leapfrog forward into the digital economy, bypassing countries whose innovation is hampered by old technology and monopolistic business models

Kayondo is investing in that digital future. He used to make good money at a big law firm, but now he’s sinking his life savings into a co-working space that he started with his friends called The Tech Hub. He also co-founded a company called DroneNerds Africa that uses drones to monitor conflicts at refugee camps and enforce environmental regulations.

Kayondo thinks a lot about how the tech industry in Uganda fits into a global tech economy. Given the lack of venture capital in Uganda, he’s eager to court foreign investors. He wants to make sure that Uganda has a forward-thinking tax plan in place so that when foreign companies move in, like he predicts Amazon will, they pay taxes in Uganda.

Kayondo is concerned about the precedent that the social media tax will set for companies looking to invest in Uganda. He doesn’t see why tech companies like Facebook would want to stick around in a country where the government goes after them. (Facebook has put out a statement that they will continue laying fiber and providing access to Free Basics in Uganda.)

But that hasn’t stopped Kayondo from leading a call for net neutrality laws, which would kill Facebook Free Basics, a low-bandwidth, Facebook-curated internet that gives people access only to Facebook and a handful of other sites. It has been controversial because it prioritizes certain content, which violates net neutrality law. While debates over net neutrality have raged in the U.S., it hasn’t come up as much in countries in which many people benefit from access to Free Basics.

But now, the threat of losing free access to Facebook is stirring up momentum for a net neutrality movement. Kayondo doesn’t think that Free Basics is worth the risk of not having protection under net neutrality. This tax has shown what can happen when governments or companies have incentives for censoring content.

“Government officials don’t understand the internet,” he says. “I’m trying to steer positive policy, but the government hates me so much, they think I’m opposing everything they’re doing. But I’m trying to point them in the direction of doing it right.”

Social Media Goes Local

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, has made statements that Facebook will always be free. But the truth is, it might not be up to him.

The tax in Uganda is yet another example of how governments around the world are trying to reign in the power of global tech companies. By using the words “Fake News,” Museveni is participating in a global discourse that has turned against the big social media companies in light of their questionable data practices, high-profile scandals, and disinclination to comply with local laws. But while he may be masquerading behind the same concepts that are inspiring data protection regulations in Europe, Australia, Singapore, and elsewhere, his actions are more reminiscent of VPN-blocking legislation in China and Russia.

For the people in Uganda living under the tax, there’s been an interesting temporal collapse. Some have grown up with access to internet, but many Ugandans have just gotten access to the internet in the last few years. People are experiencing the cyber-utopianism of the dawn of social media at the same time as the current wave of techno-criticism. It’s the rise and fall of the Facebook empire, packed into a Cliff’s Notes version.

Last year, Eng. Godfrey Mutabazi, Executive Director of the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), announced plans to launch local versions of social media platforms. “Instead of Twitter, you’re going to have something local that you’re going to use,” Mutabazi told URN.

As unlikely as it is to imagine that Ugandans will forego a global social network in favor of a Uganda-only version of Facebook, I’ll bet that China has some tips.

If You Charge People to Tweet, They’ll Revolt in the Street