The head of Communication and Public Affairs
for Africa at Google, Dorothy Ooko has said “it is very hard to just have a
channel removed due to a government request.”
That was her quick and brief response to a letter by Uganda
Communications Commission (UCC) requesting Google to take down 17 YouTube
accounts that have largely been publishing or live-streaming content from
presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi’s campaign trail.
The channels that UCC is targeting have been gaining traction
because of the content they publish, most of which is enhancing Kyagulanyi’s
messages. They had more than 59 million views and 300,000 subscribers as of
December 15, when URN analyzed YouTube stats of the said channels.
In a letter dated December 9, 2020, to the Chief Executive
Officer Google Inc, UCC said that the YouTube channels it listed violated
Ugandan laws and that the continued broadcast by the channels might cause
economic sabotage and compromise Uganda’s national security.
UCC says, without evidence detailed in the letter, that most of
the channels were used to mobilize riots that resulted in loss of lives. UCC
also accuses the YouTube channels of reporting news in a sensational,
unbalanced and unprofessional manner.
“The broadcasts contain gruesome pictures including pictures of
dead bodies, wounded victims of attacks and accidents, in a manner likely to
cause public anxiety. Glorifies lawlessness and undermines public interest,
confidence in the law and its enforcement in Uganda,” the letter reads.
But for YouTube channels to be removed, Ooko said, the
governments have to submit court orders. “We always follow local law, but it
would have to be a valid court order. The letters just show what the UCC
submitted to the Embassy; they are not court orders,” she said.
A transparency report on YouTube community guidelines indicates
that the site does not allow pornography, incitement to violence, harassment,
or hate speech, and relies on a combination of people and technology to flag
inappropriate content and enforce these guidelines. It adds that a YouTube
channel is terminated if it accrues three warnings in 90 days, has a single
case of severe abuse, or is determined to be wholly dedicated to violating the
“Flags can come from our automated flagging systems, from
members of the Trusted Flagger program (NGOs, government agencies, and
individuals) or from users in the broader YouTube community,” the page reads.
The request to have the channels removed in the middle of a
presidential campaign in which Kyagulanyi has leveraged the use of online
platforms has been viewed as an attempt to limit online space for the musician
turned politician, according to lawyers.
“This is political, it’s not about business or registration,”
Robert Kirunda, a lecturer at Makerere University says. “UCC gagged
mainstream media and they thought that once you control radio and TV and say
don’t air Bobi Wine rallies, you have solved the problem,” he added.
But he argues that the complexities came when Bobi Wine
supporters started using online channels to broadcast his messages. These
channels are hard to regulate, Kirunda says because when you shut down a page,
another will be created in minutes, and the process continues.
Kirunda adds that Google’s response to UCC will be informed by
two factors: If there is evidence that the channels that UCC is requesting to
be removed violate YouTube community standards, and if they violated Uganda
Human rights lawyer, Nicholas Opiyo says UCC’s attempt is meant
to restrict the use of YouTube, a popular alternative platform for politicians
such as Kyagulanyi who are denied access to mainstream media.
Nicholas Opiyo says that the letter by UCC is indicative
that it doesn’t understand how big-tech companies such as Google operate. “You
can’t cite the UCC act and claim that these big tech companies are in violation
of these laws,” he says. Opiyo says companies such as Google can act on the
basis of legitimate court orders.
Opiyo also argues that UCC should know that YouTube and other
big tech companies are not policemen of content that doesn’t violate community
standards on their platform. Such content, he says, doesn’t include legitimate
Abdul Salam Waiswa, the head of Legal and
Compliance at UCC, told URN yesterday that these channels have not
registered as required by the law. UCC early this year directed all online
publishers to register.
Both Opiyo and Kirunda say it doesn’t require the intervention
of Google to have the platforms register.
“Without going to google, there are enough laws in this country
that you can use to go after someone who is not registering. You don’t need to
go to Google,” Kirunda says.