Between freedom of speech and freedom after speech lies the people of Uganda who currently find themselves caught up in the digital rights battle between their government and Big Tech.
Internet users in Uganda have reported that the government has restricted internet access and blocked social media in the country ahead of the general elections scheduled to take place on Thursday.
Tony Seyinde, a resident in Uganda said in a Facebook post on January 10 that the government had started suspending access to certain apps and websites.
“And so it has started in Uganda. Election is in 4 days, facebook videos has been shut down, app store disabled, selected facebook pages not accessible…. Welcome to the stone age. Soon, all social media will be off air… Pips, vote and stay alive!”Tony Seyinde
According to Aljazeera, the Ugandan Communications Commission has ordered internet service providers (ISPs) to shut down social media and online messaging platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Signal and Viber. Up to 100 virtual private networks (VPNs) were also reported to be among services to be blocked.
This is not the first time the Ugandan government is preventing access to internet services before elections as the Yoweri Museveni-led administration is known for shutting down the internet and gagging social media to silence opposition voices in the build-up to elections. Authorities shut down the internet twice during the 2016 general elections.
With elections to hold in two days, what exactly is going on?
Ugandan Govt Fighting Back Against Big Tech
Uganda’s ruling party has continued to deploy several tactics to stifle political dissent and solely lead conversations in line with its political interests across social media. But Big Tech companies such as Facebook and Google are not letting authorities have a field day this time around.
Big Tech appears to be supporting the resistance this time around by clamping down on certain pro-Museveni accounts as well as working to promote free speech and enforce the digital rights of activists and other Ugandan citizens.
For instance, Facebook recently took down several accounts and pages linked to Uganda’s ICT ministry and the ruling party for allegedly misleading the public ahead of general elections. The deactivated accounts included that of Don Wanyama, President Museveni’s Senior Press Secretary.
These accounts exhibited Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour (CIB), according to Facebook’s Head of Communication for Sub-Saharan Africa, Kezia Anim-Addo.
In a similar move, Facebook and Twitter recently banned outgoing United States President, Donald Trump’s account for inciting violent attacks on the Capitol, proving that no online user enjoys impunity.
In what was another ploy to silence political opposition, the Ugandan Communications Commission had, in December last year, written to YouTube to take down channels airing opposition videos for allegedly inciting violence. But YouTube declined, stating it would only consider such a ban given a valid court order.
It is no coincidence that users cannot access the internet close to the elections. The Museveni-led government has sought to control the narrative in the country’s internet space in a bid to retain political power and extend the party’s reign through policies such as the 2011 Computer Misuse Act. Section 25 of this Act prohibits offensive communication, a term usually used to describe anti-government speech.
Apart from internet restrictions, Ugandans still have to pay a social media tax to even access the internet in the first place. The 6,000 Ugandan Shilling ($0.05) daily charge, equivalent to $1.5 per month, represents 92% of the $1.62 minimum wage. Only a fraction of the population can actually afford it because of low purchasing power. This has pushed many people to use VPNs, which the govt has also been actively blocking in recent years.
In an extreme case of trying to suppress government critics and activists online, authorities could force ISPs to entirely disconnect web services all over the country. If this happens, then Big Tech would be effectively shut out from exerting its internet influence. While this is possible, it is also very unlikely because the government itself leverages the internet to propagate its own agenda and fight contrary public opinion.
Literally, freedom of speech is the right to express “any” opinions without censorship, restraint or legal action. But the fact that people can freely share their views on a platform does not give them the liberty to relay whatever they deem fit as every speech must still fall within the confines of what is termed “appropriate conduct” on the platform where it is communicated.
At the end of the day, the perfect yardstick to determine what is acceptable or not in the online messaging space remains a hotly debated topic worldwide.
Featured Image Credit: CNN International
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