Erik (HASH) Hersman

One Country’s Response to Online Activists? Jack Up Data Rates 500%

The average Zimbabwean lives on $3 a day, yet mobile penetration in the country is very high. As many as 12.6 million Zimbabweans own mobile phones, representing 94% of the population.

In recent months, more and more Zimbabweans have been turning to their phones to organize and protest against the 30 year rule of president Robert Mugabe. A viral YouTube video criticizing the rule of Mugabe inspired a popular hashtag, which in turn lead to country-wide protests and a national strike last summer. The 92 year old ruler’s grip on power seemed as tenuous as ever.

Then came a revelation on January 11th that may bring this nascent protest movement to a screeching halt.

The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) announced new “floor prices” for data services by network providers. This is a new legal mandate imposed by the government that substantially increases the costs that consumers must pay to use their phones and access social media and other apps, like the exceedingly popular WhatsApp. In response, network service providers have jacked up their data prices by over 500%, far above the reach of ordinary Zimbabweans. The country’s largest service provider, Econet, previously offered a 250 megabyte plan for as low as $1. Now, that same plan costs $5. Other service providers will soon follow suit.

The government describes this as a move to “ensure consistent and sustainable long-term provision of services to all Zimbabweans.” But there is no question that the underlying motive was to stymie dissent and political organizing on social media.

Over the past year there has been a marked increase in digital activism coupled with calls for reform in Zimbabwe’s political and economic conditions. The #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka citizen movements were heavily online based, an important tool in connecting Zimbabweans both in and outside the country. In July a nation-wide protest was organized under the hashtag #ZimShutDown. Now, by increasing the floor prices to a rate that is unattainable for many, the theory is that the number of Zimbabweans online will drop dramatically, removing the role of digital activists from agitating for change.

If these prices remain intact, access to the Internet will become a privilege for the elite that already benefit from the current system, not the right of all citizens. Furthermore, it is an added wrinkle to businesses and entrepreneurs that rely on internet connection for their work. In an already tough economic environment, the increase in data prices is one more hurdle to overcome.

Citizens have already started taking action against the new floor pricing. The Digital Society of Zimbabwe has launched a petition, calling for POTRAZ to “reconsider the directive and conduct further consultations on an ideal pricing structure that will ensure there is balance between citizens’ rights and business interests.”

Although network service providers have protested the increased the price of data, they haven’t released an official statement on the floor pricing. With wifi hotspots being created around key points in Zimbabwe’s cities, the increase in data prices could trigger a shift towards more wifi usage, (assuming that internet service providers do not increase their prices.) But wifi is less reliable and harder to access in Zimbabwe than data through mobile networks.

For now, it seems that the Mugabe government is willing to price millions of Zimbabweans out of their mobile phones as a cost of maintaining its hold on power.