Fees, licences and lots of uncertainty: What’s in Tanzania’s new “online content” regulations?

I blog, mostly here. I post on social media, mostly Twitter. I help run a few websites. I read and watch a lot of news articles, blogs, social media posts, YouTube videos and more, and sometimes I post a comment.

As of last month, if you do any of these things in Tanzania, you may well be breaking the law. You could be fined, or even given a prison sentence, for doing something that has become for many a normal, everyday part of twenty-first century life.

Tanzania’s new Online Content Regulations (posted online by government, also available here) came into force last month. They are a game-changer for anyone who does anything online in Tanzania.

So what do the regulations say? What is allowed, and what is not? And what are the penalties for anyone who breaks the law?

The first thing to note is that these regulations are very unclear on several important points. Some terms – such as “online content provider” and “online content service provider” – are never defined. Are these the same thing? In other places, the title given to a section of the regulations bears no relation to its content – section 7, for example, has “bloggers” in the title but nothing relevant to bloggers in the content. There are spelling and grammatical errors throughout. And perhaps most bizarrely, the main section on applications for online content service licenses – section 14 – doesn’t even require that applicants must submit their application – only that they must “fill in an application form” – or say where it should be submitted.

An immediate effect of this lack of clarity is that neither I nor anyone else can say with much confidence how the regulations might be interpreted by the communications regulator, TCRA, or indeed by the police and the courts. What follows below, therefore, is my best guess.

And a second point to note before we come to the dos-and-don’ts is that the penalties here are potentially very severe – indeed unlimited. Any breach of any of the regulations listed below is punishable with a fine of “not less than five million Tanzanian shillings” (around USD $2,500), or imprisonment for “not less than 12 months”, or both.

So, what do the regulations actually prohibit? *

For social media users and all who post or comment on social media, blogs, websites or forums:

  • You are responsible for everything you post on social media – Reg 10(1) – and every comment you post on a blog, forum or any other site – Reg 5(2).
  • Everything you post must not include anything on a long list of “prohibited content” – Reg 12. This includes a lot of prohibitions on content relating to sex, nudity, violence, hate speech, etc., but also things that are pretty harmless:
    • “content that causes annoyance” – 12(h)
    • “information with regards to the outbreak of a deadly or contagious disease” – 12(j)(v)
    • “disparaging or abusive words, calculated to offend” – 12(k)(i)
    • “false content”, unless it is prestated that the content is “satire and parody”, “fiction”, and “not factual” – 12(l)
  • Every phone, computer or other device you use to post on social media must be password-protected – Reg 10(2). Presumably this is to prevent people claiming that someone else accessed their phone and posted on their account.

One big area of uncertainty is whether other parts of the regulations also apply to people who post on social media, depending particularly on how the phrase “online content provider” is interpreted. I don’t want to get clogged up in messy details, but I think there is a serious chance that people posting on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram could be considered “online content providers.”

Facebook calls itself a platform, hosting content provided by users, for example. And while I agree that there’s a big difference between a blogger and someone posting on Twitter, I challenge anyone to show me where exactly the distinction lies between posts on a blog, posts on a platform like Medium, long articles on Facebook, short posts on Facebook, tweets and Instagram posts? What’s the difference between a video posted on YouTube and a video on Facebook? Which of these count as “online content”, and who, therefore, is an “online content provider?”

In other words, it is very possible that everything below about bloggers and other online content providers includes everyone posting on social media. This may not be the intention of the law, but I would not be surprised if someone in government decided to exploit this uncertainty and use the regulations as a way to challenge any social media users who annoy them.

For anyone who provides online content or online services:
We can assume with confidence that this includes all bloggers, those running forums such as Jamii Forums, online radio, podcasters, online TV, newspaper websites, and indeed all Tanzanian websites including sites owned by companies, NGOs and even government departments. It probably also includes anyone posting videos on YouTube. Further, as noted above, it might possibly include even social media users, and those posting content on forums, blogs or sites run by someone else.

My reading of Regulation 7(2) is that the rules around “online content providers” probably apply to “Tanzanian residents, citizens outside the country, non-citizens residing in the country and blogging or running forums with contents for consumption by Tanzanians,” but the regulations are very unclear on this. **

At some points the regulations refer also to “online content service providers”. This arguably refers to website designers / developers, website hosting services, domain registration services, and indeed anyone else who provides a service to an online content provider. If so, the following list applies also to anyone providing such services.

  • Everything you post must not include anything on the same long list of “prohibited content” that applied to social media users, etc., including content that causes annoyance, or which is disparaging or false, etc. – Reg 12, see above for further details.
  • Your content must be “safe and secure” – 5(1)(a). I assume this mean you must take steps to ensure your site does not get hacked.
  • Your content must “take into account trends and cultural sensitivities of the general public” – Reg 5(1)(b).
  • You must have an “online policy or guideline”, available to users – Reg 5(1)(c). Nowhere do the regulations state what the policy should cover.
  • You must “use moderating tools to filter prohibited content” (as listed in Reg 12), “take corrective measures” for prohibited content, and ensure such content is removed within 12 hours of being notified – Reg 5(1)(d,f,g). It is not entirely clear who has the power to “notify” in this way, as the regulations are inconsistent on this point: 8(b) refers to “the person affected by the content, TCRA or a law enforcement agency,” while Reg 16 refers to “any person”.
  • You must be able to identify everyone who posts content – Reg 5(1)(e). This seems to include identifying people who post articles on Jamii Forums or other sites, and indeed anyone who comments on any type of post.
  • You must “cooperate with law enforcement officers” in relation to these regulations – Reg 5(3). This includes, presumably, cooperating with demands to reveal the identity of anyone posting on your site, making anyone who posts anonymous comments on blogs, newspaper sites or web forums vulnerable to having their identity exposed.
  • You must apply for a licence from TCRA, providing details including name and address, certificate of incorporation, management team, staff CVs, nature of content, editorial policy and more – Reg 7(3) and Reg 14. TCRA has the authority to cancel any licence where the terms are breached – Reg 15.
  • You must pay an application fee, initial licence fee, annual licence fee, and after three years a renewal fee – Schedule 2. On my understanding, these fees mean it now costs Tshs 2.1m ($1,000) just to start a blog or website in Tanzania, followed by Tshs 1m/- each subsequent year and double that amount every third year. For online radio and TV services, the fees are substantially lower.

For operators of internet cafes and business centres:

  • You must put in place mechanisms to filter access to prohibited content – Reg 9(1)(c).
  • You must install surveillance cameras to record and archive activities – Reg 9(1)(d).
  • You keep a record of all users, including ID card details, and a record of all IP addresses used – Reg 9(1)(a,e).
  • You must keep surveillance camera recordings and records of all users for 12 months – Reg 9(2).

For anyone who reached the end of this post:

  • Well done.
  • Now go and set up password on all your devices, set-up policies to ensure no content or comments could be considered annoying to anyone and that everything takes trends and cultural sensitivities into account, install moderation and filtering services on all your websites and social media profiles, request Facebook and Twitter, etc. to tell you the identity of everyone who comments on your posts (good luck with that!), get registered, and pay the fees.
  • Alternatively, get yourself a very good lawyer.
  • Alternatively, admit defeat and rejoin the 20th century instead.

 


Footnotes:

* I have tried to include all the key points in these lists, but there are some things I have left out to save space. Where the specific details matter to you and your circumstances, I strongly suggest that you read the regulations in full, and also if necessary that you seek professional legal advice.

** I would like to remind readers at this point that I am not a Tanzanian citizen. Nor am I resident in Tanzania.

4 thoughts on “Fees, licences and lots of uncertainty: What’s in Tanzania’s new “online content” regulations?

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  3. Aikande

    I think these new regulations can be very well “understood” when reading it with the current context in mind. In the best diplomatic tone as I can, I would say that there are seems to be systematic efforts to shrink civic space in the country. The signs are so clear when one considers the literature on the authoritarianism out there.

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