Uganda Imposes Social Media Tax and Blocks VPNs
If you are in Uganda and using the Internet, you have bad news. You now have to pay taxes for using social media and mobile money. If you want to evade that by using virtual private networks, you also have bad news: they are going to be blocked. Looks like it’s a bad time to be in Uganda at the moment when the government is trying to impose restrictions on the freedom of speech. Moreover, starting July 1st, all social media users will have to pay 5 cents daily for access to Over The Top services. Or else, your service will be blocked. Don’t be surprised to wake up and not find any messages or updates on your social media feed. Unless you pay, you will not have access.
What is the Social Media Tax All About?
The world is aware of the state of this East African nation. Poverty and corruption are two of the most thriving elements there, with a large section of the population in the low-income bracket. This new tax on social media has angered Internet users in Uganda who know that it’s just another way to attack free speech while also making revenue.
The tax included services such as Facebook and Twitter and was first proposed by long-time Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni. In a March letter, he had complained of online gossip, urging the finance minister to raise money in order “to cope with the consequences.”
Although the reason behind the tax implementation was vague, the government still agreed because of the power and influence that Museveni has in Uganda. Although now 73, Museveni is still running for the next elections because the age limitation on presidency has been scrapped. Some believe that Museveni wants to rule for life which has never helped any country – see Burma!
Social media users now have to pay Shs200 (5 cents) in taxes in addition to the usual data charges, to be able to access all social media websites.
Internet and telecommunications service providers have said in a joint statement that beginning July 1st the tax is going to be charged on “Over The Top services,” which includes access to social media services like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. The tax will be deducted by service providers, and then paid to the government revenue service.
There are around 17 million active Internet users in Uganda, and the government hopes to collect about Shs400 billion (about $100 million) this fiscal year from the social media tax.
Bad News for VPN users
VPNs are used the world over, including Africa. All this time, Internet users took the help of virtual private networks to anonymously access their favorite services, bypassing all government restrictions. But their sweet times are going to be over with the Uganda Communications Commission planning to block all VPNs.
Uganda Communications Commission executive director, Godfrey Mutabazi has said that telecom companies will block all VPN applications that are used by Ugandans to evade the social media levy.
The tax has created a massive uproar among Ugandan internet, and while some unwillingly paid it, others have found ways to access social sites without paying through tax. Using VPNs for the purpose is the most popular means.
A VPN is basically an application that has to be installed on the device. Once activated, it enables internet users to hide their Internet Protocol (IP) address. By hiding their original IP address, VPN users could easily keep using social media without paying the tax. IP masking is one of the most important uses of a VPN in general.
While saying that telecom is blocking VPNs, Mutabazi also admitted that there are a huge number VPNs and blocking all of them would not be possible. He added that those evading social media tax by using VPNs are being “unwise” because VPNs consume more data than the 5 cents that internet users have to pay daily.
Mutabazi also asserted that Ugandans should pay the tax because the government wants them to pay. “If the government says pay tax, you should pay,” he said.
Customers would be required to pay Shs 200 per day, Shs 1,400 a week, or Shs 6,000 a month to be able to access social media. Telecom giant MTN was unavailable for comment when asked about blocking VPNs, going on to prove that Internet service providers in Uganda are in no hurry to block VPN applications because they get to make money from data usage anyway.
Is Blocking VPN Actually Doable?
To some extent, banning certain VPN providers can be achieved. However, blocking all VPNs is easier said than done. Streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime have been trying to block their subscriber from using VPNs to bypass regional restrictions for years. Even countries with huge resources such as Russia and China are still not 100% successful in their attempts to curb VPN usage. There are plenty of VPNs that are still working just fine in Uganda.
Ugandan Internet users are not taking it lying down and are filing a constitutional petition challenging the tax in court. People have also taken to social media to draw attention to the sorry state of affairs in the nation.
Even Amnesty International has urged Uganda to roll back the tax because it is essentially a violation of freedom of speech. It is only a matter of time as to what happens next.