Uganda’s Tax on Social Media: Financial Burdens as a Means of Suppressing Dissent

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Michael Altman-Lupu is a member of the Columbia Law School Class of 2020.

In response to political upheaval, African states have restricted access to social media platforms. In what appears to be the start of a regional trend, several East African nations have imposed taxes and fees on social media. Uganda has levied the world’s first tax on social media users, imposing in 2018 a daily tax on the use of fiftyeight websites and applications, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Skype. To access these platforms, one must pay a daily fee of 200 Ugandan Shillings ($.054 USD).

This Note will use the Ugandan social media tax as a case study through which to examine the legality, under international law, of financial burdens designed to suppress political dissent. While the analysis will focus solely on Uganda’s law, much of it will apply beyond Uganda’s borders to countries pursuing similar legislation.

Part I provides important background with respect to the Ugandan scheme. Part II explores freedom of expression over the Internet under international law and determines what types of restrictions on expression are legally permissible. Part III analyzes whether a tax that affects speech would be considered a restriction of expression. Finally, Part IV examines the social media tax through the lens of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and analyzes the consequences of a determination that the social media tax violates international norms, both within Uganda and more broadly across East Africa.

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