Uganda is taking online paternalism to a whole new level, offering free Internet but only for sites not on the censors’ “naughty list.” Quartz reports:
Uganda’s government said it will deliver free Wi-Fi services in the capital Kampala as part of an initiative to broaden the reach of the internet access to the public.
Frank Tumwebaze, the country’s minister of information and communication, said the government would provide the connection between 6 pm and 6 am on weekdays, and from 3 pm to 6 am on weekends.
“Internet access is no longer a luxury but a necessity for all Ugandan citizens,” Tumwebaze said in a speech on Friday (Sept. 30). “The ICT sector must remain at the center of this country-wide transformation steering Uganda to world class efficiency and productivity.” […]
But Tumwebaze also reportedly said that there will be restrictions on downloading videos and access to ‘bad sites’. Back in August, as part of its efforts to clamp down on pornography, the government invested in an $88,000 pornography-detection machine, bought from a South Korean company.
We wrote about Uganda’s porn policing earlier this year and we remain skeptical that the moral authorities will be successful in cracking down on pornography; if there’s demand for it, mobile users will most likely find a way. The mobile revolution is real and it doesn’t just promise to disrupt existing social mores—it also has the potential to disseminate more liberal values and to help political dissidents organize. The NYT shares what the mobile revolution is doing for the anti-Mugabe opposition in Zimbabwe:
In 2010, fewer than 5 percent of Zimbabweans had access to the internet, according to the government. In early 2016, nearly 50 percent did, with most people connecting to the internet through their cellphones.
That increase has profoundly altered the political dynamics. Social media made possible rapid and very cheap dissemination of information in Zimbabwe, where there is only one television network, the state-owned ZBC. More important, it allowed many Zimbabweans to freely express political opinions in a state where Mr. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party has a long history of violently crushing any critics.
Zimbabweans first began using Facebook for those purposes around 2012. But it was the increasing popularity of WhatsApp in 2015, and its explosive growth this year, that brought social media’s power to the government’s attention. According to government figures, in late 2015, WhatsApp data bundles accounted for 34 percent of all mobile data used, with Facebook coming in second, with 3 percent.
The spread of mobile technology and internet usage in Africa—including everything from mobile banking to data apps to streaming video and pornography—should not be underestimated. It is too soon to project the specific changes Africa’s mobile revolution will catalyze, but it is important to flag the significance of this moment: hundreds of millions of people are joining the online world and gaining exposure to, among other things, basic financial services and global—especially American—pop culture.
Mobile connectivity is allowing Africa to “leapfrog” in a few key dimensions. Prior to mobile banking, egalitarian norms constrained the accumulation of capital; wealthier family members were expected to provide assistance to their poorer relatives. These norms also made it taboo to walk up to the village bank and make a deposit; hoarding wealth meant depriving relatives of needed aid. Now, Africans with smartphones can deposit in electronic banks privately and avoid some of the baggage that still comes with saving and banking.
The mobile revolution is also helpful for the development of an active civil society—one of the prerequisites for democratization. Organized activity outside of the state helps to create competing power centers outside the ruling elite; civil society acts to challenge and constrain arbitrary action by the rulers. Now, especially with the rapid expansion of WhatsApp over the past two years, Africans from Zimbabwe to Uganda have a new means of organizing and sharing information, including political information.
Whether liberal values—such as sexual freedom and toleration of political dissent—follow from this revolution remains to be seen. Mobile users in Kampala might be able to stream Modern Family on their devices, but will they? Even if they did, would they adopt more permissive attitudes toward homosexuality? It’s an open question. Techno-optimists cheered on the liberal protests at Tahrir Square five and a half years ago and highlighted the role of technology in that movement—but Twitter also helped the Muslim Brotherhood organize. It’s likely that socially conservative chain messages or pro-incumbent political propaganda could also benefit from mobile technology.
It’s far too early to predict specific outcomes of the mobile revolution in Africa, but it is beyond doubt that Internet connectivity is already transforming lives. Whether and how states and societies transform as well will be one of the great questions of this era in African history.