Benin has joined a growing list of African states imposing levies for using the internet.
The government passed a decree in late August taxing its citizens for accessing the internet and social-media apps. The directive, first proposed in July, institutes a fee (link in French) of 5 CFA francs ($0.008) per megabyte consumed through services like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter. It also introduces a 5% fee, on top of taxes, on texting and calls, according to advocacy group Internet Sans Frontières (ISF).
The new law has been denounced, with citizens and advocates using the hashtag #Taxepamesmo (“Don’t tax my megabytes”) to call on officials to cancel the levy. The increased fees will not only burden the poorest consumers and widen the digital divide, but they will also be “disastrous” for the nation’s nascent digital economy, says ISF’s executive director Julie Owono. A petition against the levy on Change.org has garnered nearly 7,000 signatures since it was created five days ago.
The West African nation joins an increasing number of African countries that have introduced new fees for accessing digital spaces. Last month, Zambia approved a tax on internet calls in order to protect large telcos at the expense of already squeezed citizens. In July, Uganda also introduced a tax for accessing 60 websites and social-media apps, including WhatsApp and Twitter, from mobile phones. Officials in Kampala also increased excise duty fees on mobile-money transactions from 10% to 15%, in a bid to reduce capital flight and improve the country’s tax-to-GDP ratio.
Digital-rights advocates say these measures are part of wider moves to silence critics and the vibrant socio-political, cultural, and economic conversations taking place online. The adoptions of these taxes, they say, could have a costly impact not just on democracy and social cohesion, but on economic growth, innovation, and net neutrality. Paradigm Initiative, a Nigerian company that works to advance digital rights, has said it was worried Nigeria would followUganda’s and Zambia’s footsteps and start levying over-the-top media services like Facebook and Telegram that deliver content on the internet.
But taxing the digital sector might have a negative impact in the long run. Research has already shown that Uganda’s ad hoc fees could cost its economy $750 million in revenue this year alone. “These governments are killing the goose that lays the golden egg,” Owono said.