Internet censorship in Tanzania: the price of free expression online keeps getting higher

The infamous Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations of 2018 was revoked on July 17, 2020, but the law that replaced it — the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations of 2020 — enables the same kind of harmful internet censorship in Tanzania. Not only does the new law stifle Tanzanians’ freedom of expression, restrict their access to information, and interfere with their right to privacy, it also allows the government to profit from ratcheting up online censorship and control.

Numerous civil society organizations and individuals have pointed out the flaws in the previous regulation, while others have provided astute analyses of the many problems with the new regulation. In this post, we take a closer look at exactly how the law changed and how it impacts human rights, making speaking out online and protecting privacy increasingly difficult and expensive. 

What has changed — and what hasn’t

As we note above, the new legislation is just as troubling as the old. It picks up where the old regulations left off, consolidating and strengthening the government’s powers to implement internet censorship in Tanzania. The single notable positive change is that the new law limits regulation of online content to public content, instead of covering content transmitted via private communications — such as your private email or text messages. 

Just like the old regulation, the new regulation requires that bloggers and other content providers register and pay expensive licensing fees for publishing content online, in conflict with international human rights laws and norms. But that is only the start. Here’s how the law increases the risks and the cost of speaking freely online:

Expands the list of prohibited content

The regulation has added to the list of prohibited content, while also retaining old terms. For instance, social media content calling for protests has recently been made illegal while items such as sharing “evil content,” or promoting “sorcery” online have been retained. Since these terms are inherently vague, and the definitions of the terms overly broad, they create a space for abuse of the law to censor speech. 

Requires unnecessary registration and expensive licenses 

Content providers used to be able to register and get a single license to offer different types of content, but now they are required to obtain numerous permits based on the content they offer,  and can incur exorbitant licensing fees. For instance, if a provider has a YouTube channel that offers both entertainment and news coverage, they would be required to get two licenses, unless one type of content exceeds 85% of what they offer on a weekly basis. This new requirement forces providers to limit their content or pay more. It’s not necessary to enact a “telecom” or “broadcast”-style licensing regime like this, and imposing these kinds of fees will ultimately have a negative impact on both free expression and the open internet. 

Automates censorship

The law solidifies the government’s attempts to force content providers to filter and censor content using automated tools, such as upload filters. Given the vague and expansive list of prohibited content, and the fact that automated filters are prone to make mistakes, requiring pre-emptive filtering will only further restrict the rights to free expression and access to information. 

Requires immediate takedown of alleged illegal content without due process safeguards

While the previous regulation required online platforms to take down alleged illegal content within 12 hours, the current regulation forces license holders — such as the hosts of discussion forums —  to remove prohibited content immediately. When a subscriber to a forum uploads alleged illegal content, the license holder must notify the subscriber within two hours. If the subscriber fails to take down content within two hours of getting the notice,  the license holder must revoke the subscribers’ access to the platform. That improperly delegates judicial powers to license holders, who often lack capacity and resources to assess the legality of content, while leaving subscribers with no access to effective remedy. Furthermore, there are no due process safeguards. These provisions therefore fail to comply with international human rights standards for content governance. 

Imposes harsh criminal penalties for speech acts

The government used the previous legislation to penalize and censor  online media outlets and to harass and arrest bloggers. The new law punishes those found guilty of violating its overly broad and vague provisions with severe fines and penalties. For example, a blogger could face a more than 5 million shilling fine (approximately $2,150) and/or serve a year in prison. This makes exercising the right to free expression a dangerous and potentially extremely expensive act.

Interferes with the right to privacy and anonymity 

The current regulation carries forward the negative privacy implications of the previous regulation, then adds to the risks. The owners of internet cafes are still required to install surveillance cameras and acquire static IP addresses for computers, and patrons are required to register their identity, and the information can then be kept on record for a year. Those with a license to provide content must use tools that identify the source of the content, a provision that hinders journalism and whistleblowing because people cannot guarantee their sources will be protected. The regulation also prohibits use or distribution of tools that allow people to access prohibited content, meaning that virtual private networks (VPNs) are effectively banned, restricting people’s capacity to stay anonymous online. Requirements for mandatory registration and retention of personally identifiable information are not in line with the basic tenets of the rights to privacy and anonymity. In repressive contexts, when people do not have privacy, they are not truly free to speak.

Limits access to information online

Taken as a whole, the new law will serve to limit access to information online. The government used the previous regulation to suspend licenses and punish numerous media organizations, as well as arresting intermediaries. These experiences and the new regulation that reinforces the government’s censorship powers will force media houses, intermediaries, bloggers, and others to self-censor, over-comply with the regulation, and ultimately limit the information they share, stream, and host

To salvage free expression and other fundamental rights, Tanzania must repeal the law

Neither the previous nor the current regulation is good for digital rights. They have not only strengthened the capacity for internet censorship in Tanzania but also paved the way for the country to become a surveillance state. Tanzania is quickly becoming a “Big Brother” in East Africa, as the government is not only monitoring and tracking what people are saying online, it is also penalizing those who dare to speak out. When authorities are not able to punish Tanzanians for exercising their right to free expression, they are profiting from censorship.  

For these reasons, Access Now calls on the Minister of Information, Culture, and Sport to repeal this draconian regulation. We hope you join us in speaking out against the further entrenchment of internet censorship in Tanzania.