Examining the Impact of Internet Shutdowns on Women’s Online Expression and Participation in Uganda, by Sandra Aceng, Women of Uganda Network
GNI members work together to leverage each other’s unique expertise and perspectives to advance and protect freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector around the world. The six GNI-Internews Fellows have each designed a research project that draws on the unique affordances of this multistakeholder model of collaboration. By pursuing this research throughout their term, fellows apply their GNI participation directly to issues of importance to them.
Uganda has a history of wielding network disruptions as a tool to restrict free expression online. A 2020 study on bridging the digital gender gap in the country indicates that women and girls are some of the marginalized and vulnerable groups most affected by efforts to silence online expression.
According to the 2016 Web Foundation report, “Poor urban women in the developing world are 50% less likely than men to access the Internet.” By withdrawing already limited internet access as a weapon during times of civil unrest, elections, or other key public events, the government reminds women and citizens more broadly that the State is in control. This can cause fear of government reprisal, surveillance, or other targeted attacks when internet connectivity is restored. It is therefore important to understand the impacts of these measures on women and girls, as well as other marginalized and vulnerable groups.
A Brief History of Uganda’s Long Record of Network Disruptions and Internet Shutdowns
During the 2016 general elections, Ugandan authorities restricted access to social media platforms on two occasions. The first disruption took place on February 18, 2016, on the eve of the presidential election. The restrictions lasted for four full days, affecting social media platforms and mobile money services.
On May 11, 2016, access to social media platforms and mobile money services was blocked for the second time. The 24-hour shutdown happened the day before Yoweri Museveni’s inauguration ceremony for his fifth term as president.
Similarly, in April 2011, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) instructed Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to temporarily block access to Facebook and Twitter. The order came in the heat of the opposition-led “Walk to Work” protests over rising fuel and food prices. The regulator stated that security agencies requested the block to minimize social media use in order to prevent violence. Earlier that year, the government had required ISPs to filter SMS messages that contained certain words including “Egypt,” “bullet,” and “people power” during the election period.
In the lead-up to the 2006 elections in February, the UCC instructed ISPs to block access to the website of Radio Katwe for publishing “‘malicious and false information’ against the ruling National Resistance Movement and its presidential candidate.” In the same month, Ugandan authorities are also reported to have blocked access to 93.3 KFM radio station and the Daily Monitor website for publishing “independently tallied election results.” Media platforms were quickly reinstated but only after the electoral commission announced official results.
Toward Greater Understanding of the Impact of Network Disruptions on Women and Girls
Some progress has been made in understanding the impact of network disruptions and internet shutdowns on societies. The Framework for Calculating the Economic Impact of Internet Disruptions in Sub-Saharan Africa calculates the financial cost of the 2016 shutdowns in Uganda, among other countries. However, there are few studies examining the social impact of shutdowns, and in particular how these shutdowns affect women’s online experience and participation.
In addition, we already know that women access and use the internet differently from men. The digital divide between men and women in Uganda is exacerbated by high costs and a lack of relevant content, among other factors. With an adjusted net national income per capita of $435.30 or $1.19 per day, Ugandans pay an average of 5,000 Uganda shillings ($1.31 United States Dollars) for one gigabyte of Internet data. Assuming five gigabytes of data use per month, that’s almost one-fifth of typical monthly income.
Uganda’s social media “gossip” tax also disproportionately affects women by making data more expensive. The tax, which was introduced in 2018 to purportedly regulate the spread of gossip and raise revenue, requires every Ugandan to pay a daily tax of 200 Uganda shillings ($0.02 United States Dollars) to use common social media apps and websites.
To bridge the digital divide between women and men, we need to understand how women’s online experiences are constrained due to network shutdowns. Particularly, how do women and girls access online platforms in periods of election and violent situations? Do they use circumvention tools, and if so, how do they use them? How do they cope with shutdowns and other internet disruptions, and what perception and attitudes do they hold toward these measures? How does this alter women’s free expression online?
It is on the basis of the above questions that the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) through the 2020 GNI-Internews Fellowship will carry out evidence-based research to quantify and examine the implications of Internet shutdowns and network disruptions on women’s Internet access, use, application and experience in Uganda. The research will also examine the extent of how these actions undertaken by the government undermine women’s Internet rights and freedom of expression in the digital age.
To conduct this research, we will use a gender audit toolkit developed by the World Wide Web Foundation that analyzes women’s access, utilization, and participation in digital platforms. The study will be conducted in the urban, peri-urban, and rural areas of Kampala, Lira, and Mukono districts of Uganda to compare and contrast how Internet shutdowns may affect women’s online expression and participation differently in these three areas. The results of this research will be captured in a report, policy brief, and video. Additionally, booklets will be created with coping strategies for women to use in the aftermath of Internet shutdowns as learning resources for Ugandan women.