Government threatens to arrest VPN users

A user attempts to  update Facebook’s WhatsApp application on his mobile phone. Many users are opting for VPN to run their social media accounts during Internet shutdowns. PHOTO | AFP

What you need to know:

  • The line ministry says they will identify all the websites offering VPN services and block them before tracing to arrest those who are already using the VPN services.

Government yesterday warned Ugandans using Virtual Private Networks (VPN) that it has acquired capacity to monitor and switch off the sites of the VPN service providers.

Government also said they will hunt down those who have already installed the application on their mobile phones and arrest them.

Ugandans first ventured into the VPN venture during the 2016 General Election when government switched off social media sites on account that they could be used to incite post-election violence.

Since then, VPN has become popular and further gained ground when government also introduced social media tax, commonly known as Over The Top Tax (OTT) in 2018.

Mr Peter Ogwang, the State minister for ICT and National Guidance, yesterday warned VPN users and revealed that all is set to block them.

“Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has already acquired gadgets and capacity to switch off all he VPN websites and those who have been hiding under the VPN will have nowhere to [hide], but to pay the taxes,” Mr Ogwang said.

“We shall first identify all the websites offering VPN services and block them. They are many, but we shall ensure we block all of them, then from there, we shall start the next phase of blocking those who are already using the services,” he added.

When the government introduced social media tax, the UCC said it had acquired gadgets to block those using the VPN services to dodge the OTT tax. However, to date the said gadgets have not helped in any way.   Mr Ogwang also said government is in the process of reopening social media sites after over a week of shutdown.

Government shut down all social media sites and Internet ahead of the January 14 General Election and for a week, the Internet remained shut.
On Monday this week, the Internet was eventually restored, but social media sites officially remained suspended. However, by yesterday evening, some Ugandans (the non-VPN users) started receiving Facebook and WhatsApp messages, signaling that services were being restored.

The junior sector minister, however, did not give timeline for the planned social media reopening.
The Ministry of Finance through a letter from the deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Mr Patrick Ocailap, has already complained that the Internet shutdown affected revenue collection and others services in the country.

Government has come under criticism for shutting down Internet and social media with different actors calling for quick restoration of the services. They argued that the shutdown denied Ugandans access to information and prepared grounds for rigging.

However, the government has stood its ground, maintaining the ban. The president officially communicated the ban in his pre-election address last week, but blamed the shutdown on a Facebook’s decision that targeted NRM message senders.