We are still in talks with Facebook - PS Zawedde

Dr Aminah Zawedde, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance. PHOTO/ abubaker LUBOWA

What you need to know:

  • Two years after social media site Facebook was frozen in Uganda, the government says negotiations with Meta Platforms Inc, the owner of the platform, are ongoing, especially on the balance between respect of freedom of usage and national sovereignty, according to the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance Permanent Secretary, Dr Aminah Zawedde. The computer science academic, who was appointed to the office last July, also tells Daily Monitor’s Frederic Musisi of government’s plans to tax big technology companies such Apple Inc, Microsoft and Google as a way of containing capital flight.

It is one year since you were plucked from academia to become the permanent secretary. How has your experience been?
Of course, coming from academia to this role is shifting from two different environments, but surprisingly, the structure and principles do not change significantly. It’s just that, I think in academia, we are more of what people say theoretical, but we follow the trends---what is happening currently—but then once in government you deal with things of what has always been, some you wish you might want to do away with but then there are procedures; policies that hold you back. So that is ideally the difference. In academia, you’re free to openly innovate and do what you have to do. But you have to be cautious  based on the restrictions around…

Does that mean adjusting or readjusting has been the most challenging part?
Basically yes. In academia, you are not bound or closed in by the bureaucracy that we have in government where things follow a certain structure…. But when it comes to principles, how do you manage financing, how do you manage human resources and all these things; that is similar. We also have a difference in skilling, especially in the IT sector, you find that the skill sets we currently have in government cannot ably support us to getting things done quickly and aggressively. For example, now the government is running a digital transformation programme with five pillars, but implementation of regulations and policies is still lacking …

From my observation, sometimes it seems deliberate that the system remains analogue, for that is how people “eat”, as we like to say, to the extent that advocating to change is almost a taboo.
Taboo is actually the right word. I sometimes have conversations with some people on doing things a certain way and they insist they be done how they know, so you find we are pulling ropes but then you have to listen to the other side as well; sometimes it is about the output, and not necessarily the means. So that is a culture and attitude that some people have. But I think as a ministry in-charge of ICT and National Guidance, we are supposed to be in charge of mindset change to improve the way people are supposed to thrive in a globally competitive and increasingly digitised world. Do we have a deliberate attempt to change that? I can say, yes, the tone-setting is there right from the top — Executive — but sometimes you have funding challenges.

We score poorly on different global ICT indices. The primary reason for being ranked 152 out of 176 countries in the International Telecommunications Union’s IDI; 121 out of 139 countries in the Network Readiness Index; and 64 out of 75 countries in the latest Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Inclusive Internet Index (3i), is the poor information infrastructure and low levels of Internet penetration. Is this a fair representation?

I think one of the challenges is based on parameters that include policy implementation and enforcement; may be the way you conduct business and it’s a holistic kind of approach. So we might be ranking high, for example, about the five pillars that drive digital transformation, maybe ranking 90 percent in regulations, or at around 50 percent in infrastructure, but then when they look at research and development, you are below 50 percent, on research and innovation and skilling you’re below 50 percent. So I think when they get the average, then we perform poorly. But we have certain policies such as broadband policy and sharing infrastructure resources, that we have not enforced, and in terms of data, we are lacking. For instance if you went to find the contribution of ICT to our GDP, would you find those statistics? We are talking of addressing unemployment by leveraging ICT but how much are we investing, and these are not new things.  So we have to benchmark best practices, not with the advanced countries, but perhaps starting with our neighbours who are doing it right.

Do we know the scope of investment in the ICT sector?
Not quite, and that is why I am now telling you that we have deliberate efforts and we are having a lot of conversations around the same. Currently, we need to have a roadmap for digital transformation; we have the vision, but we need a roadmap of where we want to go and how. So that when we get development partners or investors interested in certain aspects of the sector we are able to point them to certain aggregated data, of what is there, missing, or needs to be improved.

There have been concerns about a number of contradictory policies. On one hand, policy documents detail lofty ideas of us wanting to compete globally and on the other hand, you have regulations such as the Computer Misuse Bill conceived by a few aggrieved politicians, and so many others. It is akin to taking two steps forward and one backwards, whose implications include investors fence-sitting.
Actually, to start from the point of investors. When I talked of the indexes used internationally to rank us, one of them is how much investments we are attracting and the data is not there.  When we are promoting business process outsourcing, some of the questions we get from people, who are willing to invest are, what policies we have that protect them. But on the other hand we keep asking how we protect our youth from being exploited and being poorly paid, and all that. So we need to have an eco-system of both the right policies to attract investments and underpins our values.

Now, regarding the Computer Misuse Act, when I appeared before the committee of ICT scrutinising the Bill, I said there might be gaps here and there, but the government comes to that realisation in terms of operationalisation or duplication. The point I made in Parliament to withhold the Bill is that in the sector, we have come up with the draft principles of the Information and Communications Bill, which we have taken to Cabinet, that addresses regulation, policies and implementation. Currently when you look at the ministry now, some of the regulatory components lie with Uganda Communications Commission and some of the electronic components fall here; some are in Uganda Broadcasting Corporation, and some here. So our argument is that we needed to first streamline our operations because currently roles are here and there. So now with the Computer Misuse Act we didn’t want to be dragged where we are trying to get out of; who does what.

The National Backbone Infrastructure (NBI) seems to have been a step in the right direction, but there are mixed reactions among many of its users—MDAs—some still spend millions on the Internet in their budget, against a system for which we got a loan of $100m.
What I know for sure is, starting with my ministry we are using the NBI as are so many other agencies. Some Internet service providers are using the NBI; so when someone says, for instance Liquid Telecom internet is fast, it means it is the NBI. So I don’t agree with claims that NBI Internet bandwidth is slow. Like I said, we have the policies but implementation remains a problem. We proposed to the government to harmonise Internet bills, the way other utility bills such as water and electricity are regulated, but we are yet to succeed.

Deputy Speaker of Parliament Thomas Tayebwa has raised the issue of the expiry of data and voice bundles, which has been a long-standing concern. Any conversation around the matter?
We know the determinant of the price of Internet is the number of users and when Covid-19 came, so many people moved their businesses online and so with the rise in the user numbers, one would expect prices to reduce, which has not been. What I can say is this is something we have to address as the whole of government; sometimes it takes a tall order, from above. I think in the ongoing harmonisation of the telecom licensing regime, this is something we will have to think about.

For two years now, Facebook has remained closed. The same app is owned by Whatsapp, which is open. While Facebook remains closed, it remains under use by several people and the government. Isn’t this self-defeating?
What I can say is that engagements with Facebook are still ongoing. I cannot disclose right now the parameters of our negotiations, but briefly it is about the balance; respect for our laws in terms of freedom of speech and usage of these platforms—I know it’s widely used by people using VPN and it’s hard to close VPNs—but we are trying to find a way.

Uganda Revenue Authority recently hinted on plans of starting to tax the big tech companies; Meta, Alphabet, etc, which the European Union is already doing, albeit they are comparatively organised than we are. What approach would this take and how much in revenues would it raise?
As we promote Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), the government is aware that it is happening on a full scale but not regulated and captured in the books. That is why we are saying we need to tap into these entities to rein in on capital flight. Already the two major telecoms, MTN and Airtel, are foreign and are reaping a lot. So in essence we are discussing how to get the likes of Google, which makes a lot of money from this country, to keep some here. We are developing a BPO policy wherein we are looking at how we can force these foreign tech companies to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.