My livelihood is almost gone because of Internet shutdowns and censorship in Uganda
To some people, the ongoing internet shutdowns and censorship might be a game, to some its war and others politics. But for me, it’s my livelihood. I am what you would call a digital native. Almost all my career has been built online. Not that I intended it that way. It just naturally happened. In fact, almost a decade and half ago, I didn’t know anything about computers, let a lone the internet. But during my senior six vacation just before joining university in 2007, that’s when I came to know and love the internet.
For me, the internet is a force for good. When I worked as the manager of an internet cafe in Kamwokya, a suburb of Kampala back in 2007, it was just Yahoo Mail and Microsoft Office. People walked miles and paid about Ugx 500(USD 0.14) to just signup or check or reply their emails. This was internet 1.0. Today, the internet cafe is in everyone’s pocket.
The Cafe in Kamwokya is long gone. I am now a software developer, a serial internet entrepreneur and digital content creator thanks to the seeds that were earlier sowed. My work is entirely online. The smartphone or laptop I use is simply a shell to connect me to the cloud, a vast network of connected computers. When the Ugandan government completely shutdown the internet on 13th January 2021, my Smartphone was just another feature phone useful for only making calls. My laptop was as good as a word processor. There was nothing or little I could do offline.
Prior to a total shutdown, the Gov’t instructed telecos to turn off social media sites especially Facebook and Twitter. Because people can easily circumvent these restrictions using VPNs, they were also instructed to turn off the Google Playstore and Apple App store just before the 14th Jan 2021 presidential elections. A complete blackout followed soon for 5 days. That went along with financial services such as Mobile Money services, ATMs. We didn’t just experience an information blackout, but an economic one too.
During this period, I was not able to make any code changes to Github, update Apps on the App stores, post content to several online blogs I manage or receive orders from my online store[specific details have been redacted to protect my online properties]. Everything I’ve built and worked for since that internet cafe 14 years ago has been on a standstill.
The Gov’t should know that it takes a lot time and money to acquire and maintain these digital skills and do what I do. As a software developer, you must have a fast powerful laptop north of $1000, pay for fast reliable internet (my monthly budget is $100), pay for monthly hosting services ($250/month for all my properties), pay for online courses to keep your skills updated (hundreds of man hours spent learning several programming languages) and a number of online subscription-based services I can’t mention.
After president Museveni who has ruled the country for 35 years was announced president, the internet was partially restored. Still social media sites, Youtube, Github and popular VPNs are still blocked. Because some of these sites share the same datacenter with other services, some people reported to having failed to access Google Drive, Docs, Spreadsheets, Analytics and so on. The actual number of online services that have been directly and indirectly affected is unknown.
Since the second week of January, I have been very unproductive. Its as though I am on some kind of unpaid forced leave from the Gov’t. This is not what I had anticipated when I decided to pursue career options that are hinged on the internet. Every year that passes by confirms the fact that I made the wise choice. I still genuinely believe that the internet is a force for good. This is not just from a biased point of view. 2020 confirmed that to all of us.
When the Corona Virus ravaged the whole world in 2020 and total lockdowns were enforced, we relied on digital tools to work, play and continue our lives. Without the internet, life would have been worse for everyone. Scientists used the internet to collaborate, share their finding to quicken discovery of a vaccine which we now have. The web itself was used by WHO and Ministry of health to disseminate information about the virus. A lot of us used online video calling tools like Zoom, Meet, Whatsapp, Facetime to conduct meetings and get work done. We turned to online shopping go order essential goods while social distancing at home. The government of Uganda itself made these recommendations to us.
It’s therefore rather unfortunate that now the same government has politicized the same platform a few months earlier it had heralded as a solution to our problems. Mine is only one story. But I represent thousands if not millions of Ugandans who have invested their lives and now completely depend on the internet. Think about software developers, website designers, digital marketers, social media influencers, Youtubers, journalists, researchers.
I want to end this with an appeal to the Ugandan Gov’t to restore my livelihood. I am a law-abiding, hard-working, productive citizen. I have a family to take care of and bills to pay at the end of this month. I need to get back to work now.