The number of people in Uganda with an internet connection keeps growing, with many citizens increasingly depending on digital technologies to do business, work, study, and socialize.
According to the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the government regulatory body of the country’s communications sector, internet penetration stood at 37.9% with 23 million internet users as of June 2021, most of them mobile users. This indicates that the number of people connected to the internet rose by 1.5 million people between 2020 and 2021.
In general terms, internet penetration remains low in Africa. According to Internet World Stats, which tracks global internet usage, social media engagement and online market research, African internet users account for only 11.5% of the world total.
For many Ugandans, social media is the first point of contact with the internet. Small businesses use Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and other social media as marketing channels for their products. These platforms are also critical sources of information.
The government, however, routinely censors certain online content. Social networks suddenly go offline, critical websites are unceremoniously unavailable and communication apps send error messages. This largely happens around election time.
Blocking these platforms affects many people in different ways and excludes many potential new users from getting online, which also means being excluded from access to information.
But people are increasingly seeking out ways to work around the blockage.
How users circumvent blocked internet sites
According to Mutebi Hassan, a network expert, the blocking of websites has given rise to more interest in Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) by many people.
“A VPN lets its users create a secure connection to another network to access restricted websites and content while shielding the user by hiding their location. Usually, ISPs (internet service providers) see all browsing history of their users, which may allow oppressive governments to censor internet access, but a VPN will encrypt the traffic and hide information from ISPs,” he said.
Some analysts say that increased uptake for VPNs is among the reasons countries like Uganda are increasingly relying on stricter laws like the Computer Misuse Act to clamp down on internet-based dissent.
“The law has been on Uganda’s statute books for a decade, and during all that time, several cases have gone before various courts in the country, but very few cases have been conclusively determined. Why? Because the law is an existential threat to freedoms of speech and expression and centered on curtailing human rights,” he said.
He cited the case of Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a Ugandan academic, former researcher at Makerere University and a social media activist, who had unconcluded criminal prosecutions buttressed for close to a decade for allegedly insulting President Yoweri Museveni using her normally poetic and descriptive Facebook posts.
Swaib Musitwa, a network expert working with Islamic University, said censorship happens everywhere around the world, although not every country shares the same forms or amounts of censorship. In Uganda’s case, censorship happens at the service provider level. Authorities direct ISPs to block certain URLs (the address used by browsers to retrieve any published resource on the web), thus blocking certain websites at the provider level. Often there’s no resistance because ISPs in Uganda are licensed by the government, and those who do not cooperate are threatened with legal consequences, which results in a climate of fear and self-censorship, Swaib told Anadolu Agency.
While many people are striving to stay online and to protect their devices and networks from harm by third parties, they often forget that they might be putting themselves in harm’s way without an appropriate approach to personal safety when using digital technologies, especially young people.
“People — especially children and young people — need to be made aware of the nature of the possible threats that they could encounter through the internet. These could be data leaks, protecting and managing personal data, avoiding harmful or illegal content and malicious software among other things,” Swaib said.
According to Lillian Nalwoga, the president of the Ugandan chapter of the Internet Society, a global nonprofit organization, while the internet offers enormous benefits, users must also remember its limitations and how to best approach them.
“Being aware of the risks is the first step to mitigate risks, and once the risks are managed, people using digital technologies, platforms and services can surf the internet free from harm,” she told Anadolu Agency.
“The risks will always be present. These might manifest as the spreading of misinformation, manipulation of people’s behavior, impersonation, exposure to offensive content and the list goes on. But learning how to manage them will ensure that people are best-placed to benefit from the internet safely,” she added.
“We continue raising awareness of online safety, inspire positive change, and advocate for better internet policies, rallying policymakers to understand that the internet is a place of opportunities where young people can invent solutions, create ideas, engage and share positively and freely in nation- building.”
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