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Netizen Report: Uganda’s ‘WhatsApp tax’ and SIM card regulations will make it harder to stay connected

Telco ad on a van in Kampala, Uganda. Photo by futureatlas.com via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

The Ugandan government approved a new tax law that will apply levies to a range of goods and services, including mobile money accounts and social media services such as Facebook and WhatsApp.

When policymakers first proposed the so-called “WhatsApp tax”, supporters — among them President Yoweri Museveni — argued that it would help to reduce “gossip” on social media. It was also popular among local telecom providers, who do not directly benefit from the use of foreign-based “over-the-top” services such as WhatsApp.

In an interview, Ugandan blogger and Global Voices author Pru Nyamishana told BuzzFeed:

one of the two biggest challenges that we face in internet governance is access. This tax is locking people out….we also believe it is a deliberate move to censor Ugandans and cut down on dissenting voices.

Citing a recent rise in murders and kidnappings, the Ugandan government has also ended a two-month freeze on SIM card sales and ordered telecom companies to register all new mobile SIM cards with the National Biometrics Data Center. It has banned the sale of scratchable recharge cards as well.

Authorities say violent criminals communicate using unregistered SIM cards in order to plan the attacks without being traced.

While the ban on SIM card sales has been lifted, new regulations will now require Ugandans to provide vendors with their national identification cards so that their personal data can be verified on electronic card readers at the time of purchase. Under the new law, which goes into effect July 1, customers will also be made to use mobile money accounts in order to recharge their SIM cards.

In a press statement, the Uganda Consumer Protection Association said SIM card regulatory measures would not reduce the crime rate. Writing about the new tax law, Juliet Nanfuka of the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) called it “the latest in a series of government actions that threaten citizens’ access to the internet.”

Taken together, these new policies will make it more costly for Ugandans — especially those living in poverty — to communicate and perform everyday tasks using their mobile devices.

Internet shutdown in India’s Tamil Nadu state following massacre of protesters

After police shot and killed 13 civilians at a public demonstration in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, fixed and mobile internet networks were shut down in three districts at the order of local government authorities. The demonstrators were protesting the expansion of a copper plant that they say is polluting the air and water in their district and putting their health at risk. Videos of police acting violently or cruelly toward protesters have been circulating on social media, leaving many skeptical of the government’s motivations for cutting off internet access.

According to the Software Freedom Law Center of New Delhi, there have been 55 regional internet shutdowns in India so far in 2018.

Papua New Guinea puts a one-month ban on Facebook, citing ‘fake users’

Officials in the southern Pacific island state of Papua New Guinea will impose a one-month-long ban on Facebook, in what they say is an effort to better understand the platform as a catalyst for the spread of false information.

In an interview with The Guardian, digital media scholar and Global Voices author Aim Sinpeng expressed concern about the ban, but also noted that it would have less impact there than in other parts of the world, given the country’s low proportion of internet users. Papua New Guinea has a population of just over eight million and an internet penetration rate of only 12 percent.

UAE human rights advocate faces 10 years in prison for social media activism

Emirati human rights advocate Ahmed Mansoor was sentenced to ten years in prison by an Abu Dhabi appeals court for allegedly spreading “hatred and sectarianism” and publishing “false information” on social media. He was also issued a one million dirham fine (roughly USD $272,000) for “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE.”

Mansoor, who has been held in detention since March 2017, is among a handful of vocal human rights advocates in the Gulf country and received the 2015 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. He was also jailed in 2011, after he campaigned for democratic reforms in UAE and signed a pro-democracy petition. From this time until his most recent arrest, he faced harassment and surveillance both online and off.

With new software, Amazon.com is helping governments surveil US residents

Amazon.com has developed its own facial recognition software, Rekognition, a product the company says can perform “real-time face recognition across tens of millions of faces, and detection of up to 100 faces in challenging crowded photos.”

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union obtained and released emails proving that Amazon has been selling the software to local governments in the US states of Arizona, California and Oregon and that the company had trained and consulted with government officials under a non-disclosure agreement initiated by Amazon.

The organization also co-wrote a coalition letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, demanding that Amazon “stop powering a government surveillance infrastructure that poses a grave threat to customers and communities across the country.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Human Rights Watch were among signatories.

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