Working remotely is every employee’s dream! One of the best perks about working for Ushahidi is the flexible working options. That’s not to say that we don’t all work hard and long hours, but we get the autonomy to choose when those hours are. With a distributed team of over 30 people across 10 countries in several continents collaborating in multiple time zones, Ushahidi continues to churn out great products. At Ushahidi, I am currently assigned to the DREAMS programme in Uganda offering support to seven organizations engaged in HIV prevention programs by unlocking their ability to make evidence-based decisions using feedback data from their project beneficiaries using the Ushahidi platform. My day-to-day work revolves around the instantaneous need to stay connected using modern day communication tools. I spend the large part of my day on tools like Slack, Google docs, Hangouts, and others to communicate with my colleagues.

On 1st July 2018, I woke up and found myself in every remote-workers’ nightmare — Internet Censorship! I was unable to text or video chat using any of my favorite apps. The Government of Uganda announced that with immediate effect all Internet users would have to pay a daily excise tax of $0.052 to access over-the-top (OTT) services. Most of us have been subconsciously using OTT services. Here is an example to give more understanding to the concept. Users purchase data plans from mobile network operators, then they download applications like WhatsApp to make cheaper voice calls and texts using the mobile network. WhatsApp in this case is the OTT service. Ideally, the mobile network operator whose network services are being utilized for the OTT service has no control, no rights, no responsibilities and no claim on the latter. This is because the user should be free to make use of the Internet the way they want. The mobile network carrier only transfers the IP packets from source to destination. Telcos are supposed to be neutral with respect to the packets and their contents. It is completely illogical for a tax to be imposed on the transmission or receipt of voice or messages over the internet protocol network. Over 50 services are affected in Uganda including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Skype, and LinkedIn!

Over the last decade, Uganda’s Internet penetration has been steadily rising with an estimated 17 million users by the end of 2017 according to Uganda Communications Commission, the county’s communications regulatory body. This distinctive model of Internet censorship risks the great strides which have been made especially in rural areas which comprise the highest population of Uganda. It presents a classic paradox where initiatives and heavy investment made to improve broadband connectivity for educational and health institutions are likely to be hampered.

The internet is undoubtedly a vital tool in the modern world. By acting as a catalyst for free expression, it facilitates other human rights, such as the right to education.It also provides unprecedented access to sources of knowledge, improves traditional forms of schooling, and makes sharing of academic research widely available.

Many young, savvy Ugandans are fighting these restrictions. They are creating ways to circumvent this form of online internet censorship. New techniques are becoming mainstream, including proxy servers and virtual private networks (VPNs) to access content beyond the country’s censorship wall. However, there is not yet a critical mass making a public outcry, due in large part because most Ugandans live in rural areas and are not active users of the internet and/or don’t have a medium to voice their concerns.

We're at an inflection point when it comes to freedom on the internet. Many governments across the globe are laying groundwork for filtering mechanisms to censor the internet. The internet has been an open and inclusive platform for innovation, expression and development, and it should remain so. There is an urgent need to step up advocacy for cross-national policy regarding the neutrality of the internet and strong repercussions instated for governments which attempt to hinder equal access. Through creating a foundation on which to base internet policy, authorities can make evidence-based decisions rather than rhetoric.

[Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity, and do not in any way represent those of our funders or partners.]