Uganda Bans VPNs To Prevent Users From Dodging Its Absurd New Social Media Tax

from the kick-'em-when-they're-down dept

Countries around the world continue to wage their not so subtle war on the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and encryption. In Russia, the government has all but banned the use of VPNs by layering all manner of obnoxious restrictions and caveats on VPN operators. The goal, as we’ve seen in China and countless other countries, is to ban VPN use without making it explicitly clear you’re banning VPN use. The deeper goal is always the same: less privacy and online freedom for users who use such tools to dodge surveillance or other, even dumber government policies.

Case in point: Uganda recently decided it would be a great idea to impose a new 200 Uganda shilling ($0.05) tax on the use of social networking websites. President Yoweri Museveni pushed for the changes to combat what he calls “gossip,” and now users have to pay the 200 shilling fee each day just to access websites and services like Facebook, Whatsapp, and Twitter. $20 more per year is not an insubstantial sum in a country where the average income is around $600, and the average Ugandan survives on usually less than a dollar per day.

The tax is, not surprisingly, not being received well:

The nation’s wireless carriers were quick to comply, informing users they should use mobile payment services to pay the government tax:

Shockingly, VPN use has soared in the country as users try to dodge the new tax. Predicting this, Uganda’s government has doubled down on bad ideas, and has been pressuring ISPs to ban VPN use. In a statement posted at Facebook (200 Uganda shillings, please), the Ugandan government tries to deter VPN use by trying to claim using VPNs will cost more than the cost of bandwidth and the social media tax, since VPN encryption utilizes slightly more bandwidth and most user connections have caps and overage fees:

“…if you think it is cheaper to use VPN than paying Shs 200/day, I think it is very unwise to think that because the data consumption under VPN is very high, I think you?re aware of that. We have technology that will block the VPN services so that no one dodges the taxes. Different VPN systems continue to come with more advanced features to circumvent government crackdowns but governments around the world have continued to block them.”

Let the game of Whac-a-Mole commence.

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Comments on “Uganda Bans VPNs To Prevent Users From Dodging Its Absurd New Social Media Tax”

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PaulT (profile) says:

“We have technology that will block the VPN services so that no one dodges the taxes”

Luckily, there’s no Ugandan businesses, banks, teleworkers or anyone else who would need to use a VPN for anything legitimate and useful to the economy. Certainly nobody who needs to protect their data from anything other than the local government. Because that would make this sort of thing even sillier than just trying to enforce a tax because you don’t like what some people are talking about.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

They didn’t say they’d “block VPNs”, they said “block Virtual Private Networks (VPN) applications that are aiding Ugandans to evade social media tax.” Depending on how you read that, VPNs that cannot be used to avoid the tax — like bank/business VPNs that block social media — might not be affected.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Well, it certainly is worded in a way that allows them to claim that anyone they block deserves it even if they have legitimate uses, I’ll give them that.

“Depending on how you read that, VPNs that cannot be used to avoid the tax — like bank/business VPNs that block social media — might not be affected.”

OK. I have a copy of OpenVPN. Am I using it to connect to a server for work purposes from home? Am I doing it to protect financial or personal information for my company’s clients? Am I using it just so I don’t risk my laptop being compromised while using public wifi access? Am I using it to bypass geo-restrictions on Netflix? Am I using it to avoid taxes? Then, what’s the action? Do struggling businesses have to pay taxes for things they don’t do, or do you outlaw VPNs that are properly configurable (and thus block a lot of legitimate business activity)?

The point is, while it may exclude certain pre-configured VPNs that have already passed some kind of test, there’s a hell of a lot of types of VPN that don’t conform to that, and without compromising the traffic you can’t know what each one is being used for. If you only target things like preconfigured apps that are sold as a censorship bypass, there’s still going to be a lot of people using an open solution. If you block the open solution, lots of international partners aren’t going to be doing business with Ugandans.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I have a copy of OpenVPN. … Am I using it to avoid taxes?

If both ends are in the same country, and you’re not sharing with multiple users, no tax would be avoided. With internet surveillance, it’s not so hard to figure that out (if a VPN server accesses Facebook, and has multiple clients, it might be tax evasion; businesses won’t fit this profile if they block Facebook).

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“If both ends are in the same country, and you’re not sharing with multiple users, no tax would be avoided.”

So, international collaboration is right out, then, or is it just accepted that the tax has to payable to the government just in case? Must be a joy for small businesses and contractors, since you’re not going to get any such work with any reasonably savvy client without VPN access to their infrastructure.

“if a VPN server accesses Facebook”

…and if that server is based in another country, but you’re just a contractor working for that company and have nothing to do with the people in their offices who access Facebook quite legally?

You get where I’m going here. Either this restricts people performing legitimate business to only work inside borders and/or without a VPN (a massive disadvantage for numerous business sectors), or everyone’s paying the tax whether they can afford it or not as a cost of doing business.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Either this restricts people performing legitimate business

Of course there’s gonna be a ton of collateral damage, as happens in VPN-banning countries like China. It tends not to stop governments from making these ham-fisted attempts.

Polls show Uganda’s government is considered one of the most corrupt in the world, so don’t assume everyone using a VPN will be paying the tax.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Actually, there is a way, if you are travelling there, to avoid the VPN block.

I found a way around the filtering at one Taco Bell franchaise that previous owners had.

With SoftEther on my home computer, I could first connect via the SSL VPN on port 443, and then connect my normal VPN, using the internal address on my network for it, instead of the external address. If I used the external address, it would be blocked, but the using the internaal address for my PPTP VPN server, on my network, the connection want through.

I could then totally bypass the monitor they had set up to detect if you tried to sneak past the filter using a proxy. The SSL sniffer they had was neutered, when I connected to the PPTP VPN on my home network, using its internal address of, instead of the external address I had.

For exmaple, Live 365, which I used for my online radio station I had it, was blocked, but using this workaround I found allowed to me to totally bypass all filtering, and their SSL sniffer.

When I did that, I did not break any California or federal laws getting around their filter like that

Bypassing web filtering does not break the CFAA, so I did not break either the CFAA, or any California law, when I used the workaround I found to bypass the filtering system that Taco Bell restaurant had, at the time, to be able to access the website for my online radio station, which was also blocked, as all audio/video streaming sites were blocked by that filter.

In short, you could do this, if you travel to Uganda, and it will likely work. Just make sure your home broadband access has a static IP, and allows servers. You just then install SoftEther on your computer, and setup the login credentials. Just be sure to open the needed ports on your router, and you will be good to go.

David says:

"Data consumption under VPN is very high"

Yes and no. VPN traffic cannot be meaningfully compressed, but any compression happening outside of the user’s control does not decrease the bandwidth billed to the user, just the bandwidth used by the carrier.

So VPN usage will drive up general carrier costs (and thus everybody’s bill) though increasingly less so as https and other encrypted traffic forms become commonplace, thwarting compressibility again. But it’s not the VPN users in particular that will pay for that cost.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "Data consumption under VPN is very high"

Whats wrong with compression at the browser and service, that way it stays compressed through the VPN?

Also, if the carrier is so near capacity that they have to use effective compression to keep their response times reasonable, they need to increase the capacity of their infrastructure.

Where VPN use can have an impact on traffic is where it causes the nodes of a CDN near the user to be bypassed, for nodes near to the VPN, That is not likely to be a problem for most social media, as the CDNs tend to be country level, not city level.

Anonymous Coward says:

"Shithole" Countries

Uganda is one of the poorest and most backward countries on the planet. Like the entire region of central Africa, it’s hardly fair to criticize a country that’s just barely emerging from the Stone Age and whose many problems are far worse than issues of VPNs and other playthings of the rich.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "Shithole" Countries

What may be a plaything for the rich can be an important tool for the poor. Facebook etc. allows poor farmers for example to compare notes, seek and obtain advice, and keep up with markets.

It also allows them to organize to better their situations, but then the rich cannot have them doing that because that threatens the privileges enjoyed by the rich.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "Shithole" Countries

it’s hardly fair to criticize a country that’s just barely emerging from the Stone Age and whose many problems are far worse than issues of VPNs

Of course it’s fair. They decided this was important enough to legislate. They could have focussed on important problems, like hunger, but they chose to create a new problem.

Jay Fude (profile) says:


Would TOR help the Ugandans? No higher bandwidth, no paying for a VPN? I would use my Google Fiber and Linux box power to help run an exit node for them if it would help. If We the People just band together, like we did for SOPA, etc, we could maybe yank power away from all governments. I haven’t seen one yet that didn’t have more power than the people want it to have.

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