By Dr Ian Clarke
The URA has proposed that we abolish OTT on social media and apply it to data instead. This is because many people bypass OTT using a VPN. Taxing data makes sense in terms of increasing tax collections, but it will make the use of data even more expensive than it already is. In many developed countries data is cheap so that consumers can obtain very fast broadband, which makes all the benefits of the Internet readily accessible.
In Uganda we pay for small bundles and wait patiently as little circles go round and round. So is making our already expensive data even more expensive the right thing to do since it limits our access to the many benefits of the internet, particularly in the fields of accessing information and education?
I have just read a book called ‘Bored but Brilliant’, which extolls the virtues of restricting the use of smartphones. The author found that she had become preoccupied with scrolling through her smart phone, and as a result she had lost the ability to concentrate and read properly. She was so used to scanning that she no longer had the attention span to read a whole book. So she limited the time she spent on her smart phone, and as a result found she had more time to think and be creative.
I have five grandchildren who have grown up in the digital age. For them tablets are not something that one swallows, they are electronic devices on which one plays games, can access the internet or even read an electronic book, but I don’t think their lives have been adversely impacted by these developments. My wife is an English teacher and has spent time reading with them, as a result of which they have developed good reading habits.
In Britain and America there are many parents who limit the amount of time their children can spend on their smart phone, tablets or laptops because children can grow up relating to the world only through social media. Rather than forming real relationships, they become used to relating through texts, photos, and shared media and lose the ability to have face to face conversations and interactions.
These issues are more pertinent in western countries where smart phones and fast internet speeds are the rule, but it got me thinking about how we use smart phones and the internet in Uganda. It is probably fair to say that we are already handicapped by the high costs and slow speed of the Internet, but this does not stop young people using social media, taking selfies, posting them on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, scrolling through their phones and playing Candy Crush. Most Apps are designed to be addictive and they measure success by how long they can keep the customer scrolling on their App, so it is common to see young people in Uganda who are constantly looking at their phones.
I don’t think that overuse of smartphones is any more desirable in Uganda than in New York, but we should not forget the educational use of the internet (I don’t know how I would check facts and get information without Google), and perhaps before the URA adds more cost they should pause and ask what is keeping Ugandan young people occupied and entertained when they have nothing else to do? This week we have graduated thousands more young people from Makerere, but how many of them will find gainful employment as a result of their degree? It will be a small fraction, while the rest will join the world of the unemployed, or start hustling for a living.
So it is a chicken and egg situation: there is a huge unemployment problem in Uganda for which the government must take some share of responsibility. Scrolling through one’s phone is not a particularly constructive pastime, but it is all that many of these unemployed young people have to occupy their time. But the URA is going to make it more expensive for them to enjoy this pastime.
Could such a move be counterproductive or even dangerous in terms of preserving the status quo? In Sudan the government progressively made life harder for young people. There was no employment, there was no music, there was no entertainment, and the internet was strongly controlled. Eventually these unemployed bored young people rose up and brought down the President. Now there has been a change in government policy and there are now concerts, music and Internet access again.
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