By Dennis Katungi
If Uganda was a lass at 59, among the issues of concern - would be the unregulated cyber-space. The internet, social media, and its alarming consequences: fake news, organized criminal activity, surveillance, spyware, spam, pornography, and so on. The concern is global.
There is the counterargument that the internet was a God-send, a unique technology, a force for good and so, ordinary laws & regulations should be applied to contain the down-side.
This debate is ongoing and rests on the tension between the claimed benefits of the internet – that it provides a free market of ideas and a source of cheap information as well as innovation and creativity. Some argue it should remain unregulated, free for all.
The answer lies somewhere in between these extremes. There exists a real need for regulation of the internet, but this regulation should be within the limits of freedom of speech. The time when developments in science & technology were automatically welcomed as progressive and beneficial has passed.
Public confidence in the scientific community has given way to skepticism. The distrust with Covid-19 vaccines is a good example. This is due to the development of a wide spectrum - highly complex and sophisticated multiple technologies.
In cyberspace, the recent reported Pegasus spyware scandal, used by Rwanda to wiretap conversations of top Ugandan officials is another case in point. The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) averred that Rwanda was linked to a series of intrusive wiretaps on Uganda’s ex-Prime Minister Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, the former Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa as well as the Director General of External Security Organization (ESO) Joseph Ochwet.
President Paul Kagame said that those who deal with security matters and cyber issues in Rwanda have explained time and again that Rwanda does not apply that toolkit.
“Like any other country in the world, Rwanda collects intelligence and there are so many ways of doing that. We tend to rely more on human intelligence than those alleged methods”.
These accusations did not help the two neighboring countries to mend fences. Social media spurred the Arab Spring but could not sustain it. Massive protests coordinated online via Twitter, YouTube and Facebook sparked off the revolution in Tunisia, swept thru Egypt and a number of other Middle East countries.
The Arab Spring was supposed to jumpstart democracy via social media. Commentators, comparing these activists to the US peace protesters of 1968, praised the effort as democratic dawn for an area that had long been populated by autocracies. Alas, the promise faded.
All technologies should be evaluated independently before being introduced in-country and the government should have a say-so in processes that sanction technology transfer and usage. Uganda at 59 is not yet in the league of countries like China and Taiwan, with elaborate internet censorship.
Those can block unwanted website content and monitor access. Their own platforms establish self-censorship mechanisms and private companies hire teams and invest in powerful artificial intelligence algorithms to police and remove illegal online stuff. Uganda holds a softer attitude towards other advancements such as DNA related scientific developments although these surfaced about the same time as the internet.
There is a belief that harm, posed by recombinant DNA research may have been overblown. This technology comprises altering genetic material outside an organism to obtain enhanced and desired characteristics. This is what NAGRIC and NARO use to improve plant and animal species.
But the Biotechnology-Bill has languished in Parliament since 2012. Any technology that improves the quality of seeds/plant or animal species is worth exploring. DNA technology that engenders desirable characteristics that enhance the resilience of targeted genes has an immeasurable positive impact even with the human race.
By virtue of this technology, crucial proteins required for solving health problems and dietary purposes can be produced safely, affordably and sufficiently. This technology has been in incubation in Uganda for quite some time. The proponents argue that it will improve both food and animal species thereby enhancing food security and tackling resistance to adverse environmental & health hazards.
Uganda at 59 would argue that the harm posed by the internet has not been fully appreciated hence the need for some level of regulation. Uganda could table as proof the escapades of toxic bloggers such as Lumbuye, Peng-Peng, Kojja Omugezi, Kimbugwe, Eddie Mesiah among others who have been spreading harmful propaganda against government, the Buganda Kingdom as well as the first family.
Some of the bloggers announced the Kabaka, the President of Uganda as well as Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba dead. The calculation was that such news could spark off a revolt, an Arab spring moment that could topple government. There is no doubt that social media can be a useful tool in the hands of well-meaning actors.
Equally, it can be used by all & sundry including the enemies of the state. It can help governments engage with audiences ordinarily hard to reach, e.g. the young people. Indeed, H.E. the President of Uganda now engages on several platforms.
It helps businesses with brand awareness that can attract the attention of customers and increase brand visibility and build brand reputation. It is cost-effective compared to traditional advertising media. Social content can boost traffic to websites which in turn leads to increased online conversations that turn into sales.
But, as with all good things in life, there is always the downside. Also, resources have to be committed, in both hard & software as well as skilled personnel to manage any substantial online or social media presence. The user entity has to respond to feedback and commit to producing new content.
This would certainly include hiring and training personnel, investing in paid advertising and paying for the cost of creating video or image content. But the question remains - to regulate or not to regulate the broad spectrum of cyberspace. Uganda at 59 is lumbered mixed thoughts. There’s a Runyankore line that describes this paradox – Mire, Mire Omuriro, Ncwere, ncwere obunuzi (You say I swallow, but it’s too hot, you say I spit it out, but it’s so sweet)!
The writer is the director of communications & media relations at Uganda Media Centre