Thursday March 8 2018

President’s directives on UTL threaten growing Internet sector

One of the UTL offices in Kampala. FILE PHOTO.

One of the UTL offices in Kampala. FILE PHOTO.  

By Dorothy Mukasa

President Museveni last month opened a Pandora’s Box by ordering that all government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) must procure their Internet services from the highly indebted Uganda Telecom Limited (UTL). In seeking to find solutions to the teething problems that have hamstrung Utl over the years, Museveni’s directives, if implemented, will trigger further complications for company, the entire Internet sector and the millions of Internet subscribers in Uganda.
The President’s argument that Utl monopoly in provision of government Internet would go a long way in revamping the telecom operator flies in the face of the dictates of a free market economy.
Imposing a UTL monopoly is against the free market system where the laws and forces of supply and demand are free from any intervention by a government, price-setting monopoly or any other authority.
With Ugandans, including MDAs, already grappling with maddening troubles of expensive Internet, unreliable [slow] Internet and Internet breakdowns, the magic bullet to these cannot be monopolising Internet services under UTL.
With such problems in the sector, it would be prudent for Ugandans, and indeed MDAs, to have as many options in the pool as possible. Imposition of a UTL monopoly for provision of Internet services for MDAs will inevitably stifle the growing Internet [and ICT sector] that have been generous contributors to Uganda’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
With the estimated number of individuals using Internet in Uganda increasing by 7.9 per cent from 15,531,954 in 2016 to 16,765,686 users in 2017, according to Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) figures, Internet services are better off left to operate in a free market system.
Like the proverb goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
State minister for Investment Evelyn Anite has been the brain behind the attempt to effectively impose UTL on Ugandans. Anite had proposed to make ownership of a UTL SIM card compulsory for all Ugandans - just as the case with national IDs. That proposal died a stillbirth and Anite abandoned it. She should be in better position to advise the President about the risks that his directives are fraught with.
And the difficulties with Museveni’s directives do not stop with the economics of allowing UTL to monopolise provision of Internet services to MDAs. Take, for instance, legitimate concerns over the safety of private data, which UTL can easily access if given the monopoly of provision of Internet services.
With the absence of a data protection law/policy, private data is susceptible to abuse. The Data Protection Bill and Privacy 2015, is yet to be disposed of by Parliament’s Committee on Information and Communication Technology (ICT).
Last year, Ugandans were rightly alarmed when they learnt that the government had allowed telecoms access to confidential personal data held by National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA) in order to enforce new directives on SIM card registration. That set off alarm bells and we cannot afford not to have picked any lessons.
In Museveni’s letter, he says that Utl has a shareholding of 9.13 per cent in the West Indian Ocean Sub-Marine cable and that it has the “infrastructure to transmit and store data”. He, however, does not address himself to the concerns about the safety of personal data if it ever landed into the hands of UTL and the West Indian Ocean Sub-Marine cable.
With a chequered past of messing up data, Ugandans have all the reasons not to trust a government monopoly with data and President Museveni should re-think his position.
And then the directive that Utl should collaborate with a Chinese company to pull off all these endeavours will unnerve anyone familiar with the mass digital surveillance that is perpetrated by many Chinese firms. Internet freedoms are nearly unheard of in China.
Suffice to note that Museveni’s directive for UTL to collaborate with a Chinese firm came just as reports that China bugged the African Union (AU) headquarters in Ethiopia and data from the building was being copied to Shanghai.
Should we then trust the Chinese firms with our personal data? Clearly no. The crisis at UTL was largely caused by mismanagement and the government must sort out that.

Ms Mukasa is the acting chief executive officer, Unwanted Witness-Uganda.
[email protected]

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