As I was having my morning coffee today, March 10, 2021, I was shocked to read on the news that the government is contemplating charging Tanzanians for WhatsApp calls to cover for falling international calls revenue. I’m a simple-minded person, so my first question was why does the government feel the urge to make everything difficult? Before I could answer that question my brain reminded me that I have a full cup of coffee on my hand, the curious part of my brain interjects and hits me with a thought, you know there was a period when governments would fight coffee, yes, they even made it illegal. Let me explain for a minute how this coffee history fit in my argument.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, coffee passed through almost a similar route the internet/social media is passing in some African countries including Tanzania. Coffee was restricted, unnecessarily taxed, banned, drinkers faced hefty punishment from fine, prison to death. The reason was that coffee was thought to cause moral decay and social unrest. The real reason, however, was that through coffee, people could meet in coffee houses and discuss many issues of concern. This made some Kingdoms uncomfortable. For instance, in 1633 during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Murad IV, the Sultan banned coffee everywhere in Istanbul and the punishment by then was death. When the news spread that the French revolution emerged from coffee house discussions, rulers all over Europe were eyes open to fighting coffee. In 1756, for example, Sweden introduced tax for drinking coffee. In 1672, British King Charles II proclaimed the fight against fake news by targeting coffee houses, though the proclamation proved to be ineffective.
It’s not just coffee, so many other things that we today take for granted faced powerful resistance from governments of the respective countries as late Kenyan scientist Prof Calestous Juma shows in his book Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies. While you can’t compare the two, with government attitudes on social media and the internet in general, I can’t stop thinking that even the conversation around WhatsApp and revenue is another coffee ban. Only this time, I think, it will be more damaging and counter-productive as the world has changed and it’s changing every single second.
Social media taxing
The Minister for Information and Communication Technology Dr Faustine Ndungulile told Mwananchi newspaper that because of WhatsApp the government has lost a lot of revenue from direct international calling and now they are assessing how to control the situation. With the dynamic shift brought by technology and also the pandemic, I was expecting the Dr Ndungulile to say they are looking forward to lowering the cost to ensure Tanzania access opportunities brought by interconnectivity, but it has been the opposite. Looking from the licensing of YouTube, to now the assessment that the government is contemplating a mechanism for charging WhatsApp calls, the government has always taken the short route in trying to reap the fruits of information technology growth and that has always been through taxing its people. This would work in some cases but I think as far as technology the decision will be counterproductive.
There are alternatives to taxing the already poor citizens. But these alternatives are not short-term and would require adequate preparation and creativity from people working in the government departments. For example, there is now a boom of streaming services. Just recently, Apple and Spotify entered the Tanzanian market, leaving aside players like Boomplay who have local offices in Tanzania. How does the government ensure other players outside are also paying their fair share to the monies they collect from Tanzanians who use these services or are we going to add another tax for Tanzanian to access streaming services?
Netflix also reported to have a 40 percent revenue increase in 2020, from Africa, Europe, and the Middle East surmounting to US$8 billion, understandably Netflix also operates in Tanzania as in other African countries, is the government going to think of the way of getting their fair share from it? This is the same way with Google Ads and Facebook which have significant business in the country. Taxing these companies isn’t easy but there are already efforts at the global level such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) through a discussion about digital tax. Some countries in Africa such as Kenya have started to legislate on this matter. So how much effort has the government put in ensuring collection of tax from these global entities? Because quite frankly taxing citizens for free services such as WhatsApp and YouTube undermine their competitiveness in the globe, and in the end, it just denies citizens access to these important tools of the modern world.
In 2018, Tanzania introduced the Online Content Regulation which was revised in 2020. The regulation requires online content creators to pay Sh500,000 for getting the license for airing education or religious and entertainment content. They also require people to pay Sh1,000,000, which is an equivalent of US$ 427, for news and current affairs, which means that basically all types of content is covered here. The regulation set that users can register as online radio, online television, online blog, and other online services such as forums. My interest here is with the online television broadcasting.
One of the upsides of this regulation is that it treats every person who posts on YouTube as an online content provider required to pay for a license, even if you post your birthday party videos on the platform. You either pay for a license or you fall into the category of people who are breaking the law. Technically, YouTube is very useful for posting longer videos of good quality and it’s free for all users, but because of the regulation, posting content on YouTube is not free in Tanzania. Since the introduction of the regulation, some creators who were providing, for example, coding classes, had to stop. Why would you pay to provide free knowledge when you know for sure you are not going to get anything in return?
The wide assumption that government personnel made was that content creators are getting paid on YouTube, but there are very few content creators who are getting paid anyway and it becomes more difficult for Swahili non-entertainment content creators to reach a stage to make money by sharing content on YouTube. Sometimes, it takes months for creators to qualify for any payment and when they get anything, it’s something so small that it cannot cover any expenses at all. The negative impact of this regulation is that it has been starving the environment of useful content as creators who can pay for a license are either artists (not all of them of course) and entertainment creators who create trendy stories. Most of all, YouTube is just a technological tool that can be used by anyone, to classify YouTube as an exclusive online TV is to alienate the whole purpose of the platform. The fee also inhibits new talents in Tanzania, new artists without capital or fanbase have been using YouTube to post content showcasing their talents. This is where artists like Justin Bieber were found, now for a Tanzanian artist to use YouTube, even an amateur one who does it for fun, she or he has to have a license. This is not only backward but also uninformed regulation.
Governing shouldn’t be about control only
I’m always fascinated by how most of our government officials see their role as controllers, managers, regulators rather than facilitators or leaders. When I heard for the first time there was a Ministry of Information, my first comment was I hope they know information technology is more than enacting laws to jail people who comment on the internet. It’s very early to comment on the direction of the Ministry, but I will just highlight a few aspects of why I think the Ministry should focus on developing the sector rather than controlling it.
We are heading to the future where ICT is becoming the basis of everything in our lives and data is becoming an invaluable resource; countrymen with ICT skills are as important as health workers, a resource that needs to be nurtured, developed, and protected. For example, take a look at the amount of data that the search engines collect and process, it becomes very clear that you can easily learn every significant detail about the country with just search engine data; from citizens’ moods, fears and worries. Leave that aside, let’s take a look at systems used in Africa from hospitals, the Ministry of Finances, the energy sector, the banking sector, and the overall financial sector. Most of these are licensed systems with millions of important data about the social, political and economic life of African economies. The reliance and global integration on these systems are increasing day by day to the extent that there is no other way of life without them. Now, countries’ grid systems can easily be disrupted without a single shot fired or a bomb. How much control or awareness do we have of this future where ICT becomes the central core of global power play?
Many conservative governments prefer an ostrich strategy, which is burying the present in a string of unfriendly and non-progressive legislations that inhibit the potential for innovation, imagination, and growth of the talents in the country. Other, more practical, and successful regimes, learn the system, prepare themselves for the future and prepare its people. The second category is one of the core attributes in long-term planning. For Example, with now emerging drone technology, why does the government even require a drone less than 7kg for a user to pay a US$100 licensing fee and pay Sh1,198,000, which is an equivalent of US$853, for a four-week training to qualify for a license? You don’t expect a fully experienced pilot to start engaging in drones, it’s the teens who have passion and curiosity, how are they going to come up with the US$ 853 for them to legally operate drones which costs not more than US$ 100?. The Ministry of Information and Technology needs to be a facilitator for nurturing and developing young talents, and not just speak words about it on podiums. They need to mean what they say because our future depends on ICTs.
Another aspect is the over-reliance of African economies on countries like Israel and China. This is in itself a worrying trend. The fact that our experts are mainly the users of technologies produced by these countries and in most cases licensing restrictions do not allow them to go above that is quite unhealthy for the future of ICTs in this country. For example, in 2015, Tanzania made a Chinese company Huawei an ICT advisor to the country and has since worked with the government on a project such as the establishment of the data centre. In announcing the partnership, the Minister was hopeful that it would lead to the transfer of knowledge and skills from Huawei. How far have our experts benefited from this kind of engagement? Are we now in control of our data center? How efficient has the engagement been and how many of these engagements do Tanzania have?
It’s an inescapable truth that in navigating this new global dimension, the future of ICTs will not be so kind to dependability. If you don’t develop your human resource to understand and navigate in this development, chances are we are going to witness a new form of power-play using ICTs and data that unprepared countries will operate at the mercy of global private companies and developed nations. You can’t prepare your citizens if you tax creative minds before they even think. You regulate imagination before it blooms into innovative products. It would be helpful for the Ministry to come up with new strategies for preparing us for the future as we have enough of these regulations. We have enough of taxation and legislation, are they willing to remove backward-thinking legislation that hinders innovation, creativity, and imagination?
Tony Alfred is a political analyst based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @tonyalfredk. These are the writer’s own opinion and they do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. You want to publish in this space? Contact our editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.