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Short-sighted digital policies for short-term gains

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Man listening to earphones. Image: Muhammadtaha Ibrahim/Unsplash

Accessibility and affordability are watchwords of the communication rights movement. Yet when it comes to digital access, governments still have not got their act together.

The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) says that Africans face the highest cost to connect to the internet -- just 1GB of mobile data costs the average user in Africa nearly nine per cent of their monthly income, while their counterparts in the Asia-Pacific region pay around 1.5 per cent of monthly income.

Despite this financial impediment, there is a worrying trend of governments across Africa creating an uneven playing field by imposing a variety of taxes on some of the most popular internet applications and services. Examples include: 

  • Uganda: the Excise Duty (Amendment) Act 2018 imposed both a daily fee to access social media sites and many common internet-based messaging and voice applications, as well as a tax on mobile money transactions.
  • Zambia: the government announced its intention to levy a daily tax on social network use.
  • Tanzania: bloggers must pay a government licence fee roughly equivalent to the average annual income, pricing long-form free expression out of reach for many.
  • Kenya: internet use was targeted for additional taxation in the country's 2018 Finance Bill, with proposed levies on telecommunications and on mobile money transfers. Implementation was suspended by court order, but such taxes could have a depressing effect on the economic opportunities of millions.
  • Benin: a short-lived social media tax caused an explosive 250 per cent hike in the price of 1GB of mobile data. Responding to public pressure, the government rescinded the tax within days of its implementation.

As A4AI points out, "These taxes are short-sighted strategies with long-term consequences. While countries may garner additional tax revenue at the start, these taxes increase the cost to connect for all -- particularly for those already struggling to afford a basic connection -- and so defer on later economic advantages, further delaying the delivery of digital development opportunities."

In Canada, consumers are spending more each year -- over three times the rate of inflation -- for wireless and internet services that don't give them added value for what they pay for, according to OpenMedia.ca, a Vancouver-based nonprofit that advocates to keep the Internet "open, affordable, and surveillance-free."

Canada also has a "national connectivity gap," the federal government has acknowledged. "Rural Canadians face the daily challenge of slower, less reliable internet access than those in urban centres," says Minister of Rural Economic Development Bernadette Jordan. "At these speeds, there is a clear divide between rural and urban Canada. In 2017, only 37 per cent of rural households had access to 50/10 Mbps, compared with 97 per cent of urban homes. Only about 24 per cent of households in Indigenous communities have access to 50/10 Mbps."

Despite broad, international agreements for more affordable and universal access to the internet, prices remain too high for millions of people to afford to connect. Such short-sighted policies also contradict the spirit of the UN's Sustainable Development Goal 9, which includes the target to "Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the internet in least developed countries by 2020."

Philip Lee is WACC general secretary and editor of its international journal Media Development. His publications include The Democratization of Communication (ed.) (1995), Many Voices, One Vision: The Right to Communicate in Practice (ed.) (2004); Communicating Peace: Entertaining Angels Unawares (ed.) (2008); and Public Memory, Public Media, and the Politics of Justice (ed. with Pradip N. Thomas) (2012).

WACC Global is an international NGO that promotes communication as a basic human right, essential to people's dignity and community.

Image: Muhammadtaha Ibrahim/Unsplash

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