Kampala. Draft Internet regulations by Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) have sent jitters in the sector, fueling existing fears that the government is consolidating control over the Internet.
Coming months to the 2021 general election, the move is also suspect given that the government instituted a widely criticised Internet shutdown during the 2016 presidential and parliamentary polls.
In 2016, however, many people were able to work around the ban and access the Internet, with government left with little option.
The regulations hinge on the National Broadband Policy, which has been interpreted as an attempt to nationalise Uganda’s telecommunications infrastructure, among other things.
The policy, among other things, gives the government a long-term monopoly on the national backbone fibre, among other things.
Experts in the sector have previously warned that the policy is counterproductive and will instead threaten the interests of neighbouring countries to immobilise the Internet and stifle Uganda’s economic growth, which the government denies.
“It is not about nationalising but aims to avoid duplication and government playing a central role in providing infrastructure. The issue of the national broadband policy should be understood in the same context like we talk about other infrastructure, whether roads, airports and so forth. ICT had been thought that it should be left to the private sector, but the world over is saying this is a sector that government should have a central interest in. If government is providing road infrastructure, why shouldn’t government provide ICT infrastructure because this is a cyber-super highway,” Mr Fred Otunu, the UCC director of corporate affairs, said.
The UCC executive director, Mr Godfrey Mutabazi, in a letter dated June 7 and entitled “Proposed Internet Exchange Point (IXP) Regulatory Framework”, has communicated to different stakeholders soliciting their views on the regulations.
UCC requires the stakeholders to have written back to the regulatory body by July 5.
The move is, however, seen as the first phase in an attempt by the government to have full control over the Internet, with its success expected to propel the nationalisation of the backbone infrastructure and other parts of the Internet.
One of the stakeholders that UCC wrote to on June 7, the Uganda Internet eXchange Point (UIXP), a private not-for-profit company founded in 2001 with the goal of improving Internet connectivity within Uganda, says the move will “effectively nationalise a critical and competitive segment of the local telecommunications industry; Internet Exchange Points (IXPs)”.
An Internet exchange point (IXP) is a physical infrastructure that allows several Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and network operators to exchange traffic between their networks by means of mutual peering agreements which allow traffic to be exchanged at no cost.
Based on their analysis, UIXP says the draft framework would establish a government controlled monopoly, “Designated National Internet Exchange Point”, which all other market players will be required to comply with.
“Technically speaking, this policy would merge all IXPs into a single national peering Local Area Network (LAN), with each IXP merely acting as a heavily regulated access point for the enlarged infrastructure. The resulting entity would suffer from all of the classic symptoms of a monopoly, as well as significant technical challenges and security risks derived from having multiple operators control access points that form part of the same IXP,” observes Kyle Spencer, the UIXP executive director.
The draft framework require government approval of contracts between all IXPs and network operators, according to Section 7.4(b) of the draft.
It will also allow the government to inspect, copy, or remove any data related to any IXP without a court order (Section 7.5.b.i) and all licensed network operators to connect to an IXP (8.2.a).
“This, unfortunately, confirms some of our worst fears about Uganda’s new National Broadband Policy; a government strategy document, reportedly drafted in isolation, that seemingly calls for a large-scale nationalisation of Uganda’s Internet infrastructure under the guise of infrastructure sharing,” Mr Spenser says.
He adds: “We (and others) have repeatedly tried to warn the government and the public that such policies would have severe socioeconomic consequences for Uganda and the wider East African region. In this particular case, the UCC’s planned regulatory intervention in our otherwise healthy industry has no successful parallel anywhere in the world -- and global experts widely regard the other attempts as textbook examples of regulatory failure.”
Instead the players have urged UCC to “defer any further work on this project until there is a clear rationale and its viability can be transparently proven with case studies and corroborating input from credible global experts.”
In the last five years, several African countries, including Uganda, Ethiopia, Gambia Chad, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Gabon, Mali, Zambia and Zimbabwe, have shut down the Internet to the masses.
Insiders who asked to remain anonymous because of the positions they occupy, say the move would give UCC more control and will centralise the domestic Internet by centralising international communications into and out of the country.
What this essentially means is that if government accomplishes the current attempt, they can take over all international communications into and out of the country and force that to be distributed through a central architecture that will be created.
“They would have a lot more control over the Internet, they would be able to switch it off internationally and domestically. Remember how [Ethics minister Simon] Lokodo was always talking about his anti-porn machine and how it is a joke. If they wanted to do something like that, they would have to do what they are doing now first. It will be like turning the Internet in Uganda into something like China where it is centrally controlled and you can put one system at the centre of it all to control everything,” one said.
The source added: “They could censor the Internet, they could monitor communication between users, they could monitor everything, they could control everything, and they could switch off everything with their own single wide switch. I am not saying this is their intention, but it seems likely and the new national broadband policy also actually calls for this.”
The argument by UCC that the new broadband policy and the new policy about Internet exchange points is about efficiency and infrastructure sharing is, according to some insiders, a lie. What they are doing is essentially creating a centralised Internet.
Sources say Uganda already has infrastructure sharing such as Google project link, a shared fibre network that Google put in the ground which Internet service providers can rent to go wherever they need to go.
The government also smartly had shared towers created about six years ago. Previously, for example, each telecom had their cell tower in different locations, but now, there are shared towers, shared ground fiber in Kampala and competitive fibre moving from Kampala to other parts of the country on a commercial basis.
“What government is doing now doesn’t solve a problem because there is no problem and you will notice in the UCC document, there is no problem statement. It just says we are doing this because our mandate is to fix the Internet but they don’t say what they are fixing.”
We put several questions to the UCC, including what problem they are trying to solve, why they are creating a monopoly, how it is going to benefit the economy and so forth.
“UCC is trying to solve the governance problems that UIXP is facing currently. Within the current governance structure of UIXP, there are complaints from the Internet community as to how it is managed. They have approached the commission to come in and arbitrate on matters of governance. That is what UCC is trying to solve. What UCC is doing is to use the same stakeholders to come together and carry out benchmarking in terms of different models of government and come back and propose to the group,” Mr Otunu said.
Sources also indicate that government’s move is not informed in anyway by the need to make money, but mostly to have control but money making is not ruled out if government controls the whole of the Internet like Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea, with essentially one network.
“They make some money from that and it is a big part of their budget, but it also crashes their economies. All it does is it keeps the people in power in control at the expense of the broader economy, at the expense jobs, foreign investment that would actually make the economy grow. At the end of the day, it is about control and centralising the domestic Internet in their hands because there isn’t a ton of money to be made from this.
UCC says what is being created is a private public partnership with representatives, for example, from the Internet industry, the community.
This argument is also debunked by insiders who say the only reason the monopoly will exist is because government is creating a law that makes it exist, which implies it is government-controlled, regardless.
“Even if this monopoly had all the citizens on board, it would still mean government is in control.”
UIXP is currently the only company in the business and sources indicate that government has previously made several attempts to take over the company in vain. About a month ago, however, a would be competitor, Raxio Data Centre, announced that they wanted to join the market.
This compelled UCC to move faster and change the licensing framework because a second player would further complicate government’s plans to control the sector.
“If you follow global events, you realise that it is a global trend now that governments all over, even in the most developed countries, have taken interest in regulating this thing called the Internet. When the Internet began or started. It was not foreseen that it would have such a global impact on society and on government. Uganda is not acting in isolation, Uganda is acting in unison with what other countries are doing,” Mr Otunu said.
“The issue would be what the extent of the regulation is, and that is what we should be debating. The question as to whether the Internet should be regulated is a matter of time, they are going to be regulated. There is no reason to fear. Government is the most dependable institution that you can have in any situation where it concerns society,” he added.
What UCC says about the governance and management of the Uganda internet exchange point
In a statement signed by the UCC executive director Godfrey Mutabazi (pictured), the regulator says: “The Uganda Internet exchange Point (UIXP) is a private not-for-profit company that was founded in 2001 by a group of three individuals (Charles Musisi, Badru Ntege, and Hope Mugaga) with support from the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) and the local internet community.
Following growth in service levels and the need for dedicated resources to oversee its operations, the founder members handed over the organisation to new management. UCC has continuously supported the growth of UIXP by hosting and powering its technical infrastructure. UCC has provided space, security, power, switches, racks, server and cooling requirements. UIXP has operated under self-regulation with Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) as an observer member, ensuring a balance of interests of all stakeholders in the internet community (government, ISPs and the consumers).
In 2015, the Commission initiated a governance review process to ensure that the UIXP operates a multi-stakeholder governance model. This resulted in the amendment of the UIXP Memorandum and Articles of Association (MEMARTs) to include licensed operators in the governance structure. The process was, however, non-conclusive due to lack of buy-in by the UIXP peers.
On January 25, 2018, UCC received a petition from Internet Service Providers over the introduction of peering charges at the UIXP. Consequently, UCC organised a meeting on February 7, 2018 with the petitioners and the UIXP management.
On 21st Feb 2018, UCC held a joint meeting with the peers, content providers and the current UIXP directors. Participants at the meeting agreed that: i. The Port fees implementation be halted until UCC guides on the issues of governance. ii. The Commission should carry out extensive public consultation on the matters of UIXP operations and management On April 23, 2018, UCC issued a UIXP stakeholder consultation document aimed at collecting stakeholders’ input on the governance and management of the UIXP.
Additionally, UCC created a multi-stakeholder focus group committee to discuss the same consultative document.
On October 24, 2018, UCC organised a multi-stakeholders meeting to consider: i. Outcomes of the UIXP stakeholder consultation document ii. Review the report on the different IXP governance and management models.
At this meeting, the focus group committee was tasked to propose a governance structure for the UIXP for discussion in a subsequent stakeholders’ meeting.
On February 21, UCC convened a stakeholder meeting to review the proposed governance structure. At this meeting, the structure was presented, and stakeholders present agreed to the same with recommendations. Currently, UCC is writing a final report to be shared with all the peers and stakeholders Under Section 9 (Interconnection with other licensees and sharing of facilities) of the PSP and section 11 of the PIP licences, Licensees have an obligation to interconnect/ peer with other licensees through a suitable and licensor (UCC) recognised arrangement.”