(By Natalie Ngosa and Chambwa Moonga)
ALLIANCE for Democracy and Development leader Charles Milupi says the introduction of a 30 ngwee-a-day tariff on internet phone calls is a manifestation of failure and mismanagement of the economy by the PF government.
But chief government spokesperson Dora Siliya says the 30 ngwee tariff the government has imposed on internet phone calls is not about tax but keeping jobs in the mobile telecommunication sector.
Milupi yesterday said the PF government was squeezing citizens because they had allowed it without judging the people in government.
“The issue of tax is really a manifestation of what we have been talking about all along. If you mismanage the economy, and the citizens allow you to mismanage the economy, eventually, those that are tasked with the responsibility to run government have to go somewhere to get funding. In the past they have gone for very expensive loans, they have tried to go for cheap loans but the International Monetary Fund has rejected them. There is only one way to go and that is to go back to the citizens. That is why you see the coming up of so many taxes. The citizens are now being made to pay for not paying attention to the running of the economy. I don’t think they like what they are doing but they appear to have no choice because they have to raise money from all sorts of sources; withholding taxes, road tolls. Citizens are being squeezed…they are being squeezed because they have allowed incompetence without them judging those in power,” Milupi said.
“Citizens of Zambia are paying the price for that indifference. Never mind what they are talking about Airtel, MTN and Zamtel jobs…since when have they bothered about jobs in the private sector…a private company like MTN? Since when have they bothered about Airtel jobs and the jobs at Zamtel which is a loss making entity and they have poured in Eurobonds and so on? Is the 30 ngwee going to save those jobs? Is it going to sustain those jobs? We have seen these taxes including the road tolls and now taxes on internet calls and so many others…. It is the Zambians who are being made to pay for the inability of the government to run a proper economy that would have generated revenue…that would have sustained them, rather than falling back on the citizens quite contrary to their policies of lower taxes.”
Milupi wondered how the government was going to tax people for making internet calls.
“Now, if you come back to the announcement itself, I have wondered how they are going to collect it. How are they going to know that I have used Skype or WhatsApp or any of these other internet communication channels? I thought that you tax what someone has spent money on. If WhatsApp chats are free, what is it that you are taxing? If people are spending nothing on Skype, WhatsApp, how are you going to determine how much to get? How are they going to collect it? Are they going to tax everyone with a phone or only those with smart phones? If these are the people you are going to tax, already you are taxing them because first of all they are buying airtime which is heavily taxed and they convert that airtime into bundles. So, are they not getting enough money from that?” he asked.
Milupi said communication eased the cost of doing business.
“…and when you impact on these issues, ultimately you are impacting on the cost of doing business. We use the internet to communicate quickly. As I sit here, I can find out instantly what is happening in Kasama. The other reason is the three companies that are being talked about; Airtel, MTN, and Zamtel, their networks are so bad…extremely bad. You can sit next to somebody, with both phones on and you try to ring the other one, they will say ‘it is outside coverage area or that the phone is off’ when you are seated next to them. Part of the reason people go on Skype, WhatsApp is because the services being provided by the communication providers; MTN, Airtel and Zamtel is bad and the other reason is that people opt to use WhatsApp and other internet calls for confidentiality,” Milupi said. “They are very suspicious of their phones being listened to and it’s because the people have lost faith in government machinery. They feel that government machinery is interfering with their private lives. So they go on WhatsApp and make calls because they know that the encryption is such that the government cannot listen to their conversation. So, these things are caused [by] the government itself; the inability to govern properly. They should look at things…the cost of living in Zambia is very high. Why introduce more costs?”
On Monday, Cabinet approved the issuance of a Statutory Instrument (SI) to facilitate the introduction of a 30 ngwee per day tariff on internet phone calls.
Briefing journalists in Lusaka yesterday, transport and communication minister Brian Mushimba said
Zambia was innovating and “moving forward probably at a pace that sometimes is uncomfortable.”
“What we’ve seen over the last few years is the migration of voice calls from traditional ways…to what is called over-the-internet protocol. So, you have more people now in Zambia making phone calls on a WhatsApp application, on Facebook messenger application instead of making those phone calls in a traditional way. What that has done is [that] it has created several paradigm shifts and we need, as a government, to think through many of these things. The disruption that innovation and technology is bringing presents opportunities for government and for the private sector [but] it also presents some risks that have to be managed,” Mushimba said.
“With the migration of these voice calling to voice-over-internet protocol, what has happened is that the revenues that were being generated from the voice-calling have gone down. Revenues for [mobile service] operators and revenues for government have gone down [because] the way talk time is priced and data is totally different. The consumption rates, how you consume your minutes when you buy talk time and how you consume data [bundles] is totally differently, the rates are different. So, through that migration and the differences that I have spoken about in the pricing regime of the two, talk time and data, we’ve created a situation where there is revenue loss for both the telecoms and the government. Over the internet, things are cheaper. In fact, the phone calls on WhatsApp and Facebook are [for] free – once you have downloaded WhatsApp application and Facebook messenger, you literally can call anyone and talk for as long as you want [because] it eats very little of your data. That imbalance that has been created is that the sector is starting to suffer.”
He said Facebook and WhatsApp were the ones benefiting from mobile users migrating from making conventional voice calls to internet phone ones.
“It’s the likes of Facebook, the likes of WhatsApp [and] they are domiciled in America, Silicon Valley, and they entice you in downloading their application on your phone. It is free to download [and] once you download on your phone, you are now connected to them – whatever you are doing on your phone, they are seeing and they are tracking it. The Websites that you go onto while you are surfing, reading your news, they are tracking…it’s called data mining! They are observing and tracking everything that you are doing and when they gather 4.5 million users in Zambia that have smart phones and we assume all of them have WhatsApp or Facebook…. 4.5 million worth of data from 4.5 million; they know the general thought processes of Zambians. They know which way we lean – liberal or conservative. They know what we eat, they know what religious biases we have. They have all that information and that is the information that they sell to the likes of Cambridge Analytica and many other such houses that buy such information at a huge profit,” he explained.
“WhatsApp, Facebook are billionaires instantly, overnight, on the back of your information. They are not giving you a penny, they are not giving this government a penny…. They are using our infrastructure to data mine.”
Mushimba said the government devised a strategy where “if you are going to make a phone call on WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, Viber or Skype, we are going to know that you’ve made that phone call and there will be a charge of 30 ngwee per day.”
“So, if you make 200 of such phone calls for that day, you will pay 30 ngwee for that day. It’s a daily charge, regardless of how many phone calls you make. What we are saying is that by charging that small fee that the majority of people that are enjoying the benefits of WhatsApp calling, Viber calling…. They are able to pay this because they are the most affluent among us, they are the most elite among us, they are the managing directors. 30 ngwee per day they are able to pay without even feeling it – it’s inconsequential,” he said. “When they pay that money, some of it… in fact the bulk of it will stay in the sector, with MTN, with Zamtel, with Airtel, to make sure that they re-invest in the infrastructure that is supporting you making that WhatsApp call, that Facebook call. Some of the money will go to government because I shared that there is revenue loss even from government because when the volume of business reduces, the revenues reduce, the taxes government collect also reduces. So, the money will split among the telecom companies…. Those that are on social media, surfing and doing their normal things, you are not impacted by this at all. So, only a small fraction is the one that is going to be impacted and many of these are very well-to-do, they won’t even feel a 30 ngwee. So, if there is any uproar or screaming, I don’t know what it is about!”
Asked if there was a complaint from the country’s three mobile service providers on revenue loss, Mushimba responded in the affirmative.
“It’s both; as government through ZICTA, our regulator in the sector, we scan the market. The telecom companies yes voiced their concerns and through our proactive scanning we saw this as a big problem,” Mushimba said. “The context is that we want to share this burden – there is a burden created by the disruption that technology has brought.”
Asked why the government could not charge Facebook or WhatsApp, unlike transferring the charge on Zambian consumers, Siliya chipped in and said: “This is a discussion we are having at the African Union.”
“Other jurisdictions have gone to extremes and just shut down WhatsApp. We have a choice as government to make that decision and say ‘look, we just switch off and’ nobody in Zambia should access WhatsApp. But we’re saying no; these are the times we are living in, of technological advances. Our citizens should have access to this technology. We will begin engaging, at the African Union level, with these institutions so that we share the commercial benefits that they are getting. But in the meantime we are saying Zambians let’s be patriotic, let’s encourage ourselves to use what benefits us,” said Siliya. “If you use Airtel phone calls, MTN phone calls [and] Zamtel phone calls, you are keeping jobs. [But] when you use internet phone calls, you are only supporting jobs in Silicon Valley in California. So, there is a correlation between your using which phone calls and how many jobs we can keep in Zambia. This is about jobs! That 30 ngwee is not about tax [but] about keeping jobs in Zambia.”