Ugandan Internet Users Unaware of Digital Rights

A report by civil society organization, Unwanted Witness, indicates that Ugandans are unaware of their digital rights yet the government is pulling all stops to violate them, writes FRANK KISAKYE.

Digital rights include access to the internet, right to access information from both state and non-state actors right to privacy and protection of collected private data, the right to due legal process in case of digital rights violations, right to equality of all gender, marginalized while online, among others.

The January 2021 report titled; The current state and development of digital human rights and internet governance in Uganda was launched at Hotel Africana last week. It reveals that half of the 547 respondents (58% male, 41% female and 1% other), at least were unaware of digital governance or their digital rights, especially the right to internet, access and affordability.

The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) sector report 2019 indicates that Uganda internet penetration standards at 37 per cent with over 23 million subscribers but only 5.5 million have active smartphones. About six million users are active users of social media with 50.4 per cent using Facebook, 21.31 per cent on Twitter, 19.89 per cent on Pinterest, 6.53 per cent on YouTube, 1.14 per cent on Instagram and 0.2 per cent on Reddit.

However, Uganda, like Tanzania, Egypt and Ethiopia, has been cited as the topmost countries to experience internet shutdowns in the recent past, suffering communications disruptions on more than one occasion. In these countries, there is also an increasing use of data collection and surveillance tools such as; spyware, CCTV camera, social media monitoring, regressive online content regulation and taxation.

The report notes that this is worrying because many governments are raising surveillance capacity even when there are insufficient independent legal safeguards.

For example, in October 2020, UCC, issued arbitrarily demands to online content producers including bloggers and others to registered and be licensed, a clear desire to contract freedom of expression on the internet. The order was challenged in court by civil society and is before court.

Article 29 of the 1995 Uganda Constitution expresses the right of freedom of media and expression - making every Ugandan have a right to use internet either for expressing one's views or gathering information without any governmental interruptions. Although accessibility to the internet is not denied in Uganda, accessibility is greatly hindered by affordability and restrictions on use, especially social media. Currently, access to Facebook is still blocked by the government since January 13.

"Most Ugandans do not give attention to the digital rights and they do not know them because there is limited civic education around digital rights; these are new things in the society. Therefore, most people cannot claim what they don't know it belongs to them," one of the respondents said.

A police correspondent from Masaka is quoted in the report as saying; "As the law enforcement officers, we have limited refresh training on digital right since we're often in operations addressing insecurity in the community. The limited understanding and appreciation of these rights often results into operation mistakes, especially when handling digital crimes."

The study indicates that failure to monitor set policies, failure to sensitize people on digital rights, limited knowledge on existence of digital rights, high charges on using social media, gender inequality and the establishment of the OTT tax are some of the factors hindering internet freedoms. More challenges included lack of proper devices for use by people with disabilities, poor internet connection, increased rates of cyberbullying and the inability to afford platforms in terms of maintenance fees.

Digital rights violations according to the report are characterised by; arrests and intimidation of online users, internet blockages, and a proliferation of laws and regulations that undermine the potential of technology to drive socio-economic and political development worldwide.

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