The Ugandan government, facing social unrest over high food and fuel prices, will order its ISPs to block Twitter and Facebook. It’s the latest move in controlling social media to control a popular social movement.
According to an official from the government of Uganda Twitter and Facebook are being used to foment public protests, which the opposition has dubbed “walk to work,” and it’s had enough. If there’s more unrest, it will exercise its authority by writing to the nation’s ISPs to force them to block access to these social networks and thus prevent more unrest. The protests are an expression of the public’s unhappiness at soaring prices of essentials like food and fuel, and the government has used strong-arm tactics from the police and army to try to suppress them.
Speaking to Reuters, Godfrey Mutabazi, the executive director of the Ugandan Communications Commission, noted that the blame lies squarely in the laps of Twitter and Facebook as a vehicle for allowing mass law-breaking. “If someone is telling people to go and cause mass violence and kill people…I can assure you we’ll not hesitate to intervene and shut down these platforms.” Mutabazi remarked that the government is “very alert” and is monitoring these media–if people “start promoting dangerous ideas, we’ll act like every country would do.”
Mutabazi conveniently side-stepped the fact that the government itself could be to blame, and that it sets the laws it’s now accusing its people of breaking. What Mutabazi did get right is the rising habit of using social media in the organization of anti-government protests and the simultaneous habit of suppression of free speech online by those same governments.
Although Uganda’s moves may be ineffective as it’s emerging that Twitter perhaps didn’t play as big a role in the uprising in Iran as it has been painted in the media, although it did indeed have an important part in what went on (counter to some commentator’s viewpoint). Critics of Uganda’s heavy-handed politics will spot the irony that the government has power to command its police to quash a public protest, but doesn’t have any kind of internet “kill switch”–much as happened in Egypt, it has to call the national ISPs to force them to censor the Net. Perhaps this isn’t too unexpected since a mere 9% of Ugandans have Net access at all–which makes us wonder whether the censorship will work to actually prevent future protests remains to be seen. Watch the headlines.