John Magufuli after he was declared president in 2015. File photo: Reuters
Whenever I was ill-prepared, my pet hate was that “all of the above” or “both” option in a multiple-choice exam.

It was bad enough that I could not decide if either statement was true or false; the thought that both could be correct grated my rural nipples. James Kilaba - President John Magufuli’s trusted telecommunications general - finds himself in a similar quandary.

Kilaba is Director General of the Tanzania Communications’ Regulatory Authority (TCRA). His agency just published the draft Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations, 2017, which are so controversial they might as well cause a premature return leg of the great migration in the Serengeti.

These regulations, commentators say, will give the TCRA licence to “tighten its grip on online content producers and users across popular social media platforms”.

This was in a report by a Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen, citing the number of people who “have since been charged in court for incitement over posts on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and other places online”.

The dilemma facing Kilaba and his political principals, especially President Magufuli, is whether to prioritise catching up with the rest of East Africa or regulating the web to contain cybercrime. The answer is: both. This is a near-impossible balance to strike, in this lightning- speed dynamism of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Tanzania is the laggard of East Africa - and the continent - on internet penetration. The country has a pressing need to get itself on the information superhighway or remain an economic under-performer, relative to its potential.

Policing the web is not easy, yet the platform is open to as much abuse as it is an enabler of civilisation.

The latest statistics on the TCRA website places internet penetration in Tanzania - that is the percentage of the population with access to the web - at 40%.

Figures from www.internetworldstats.com, however, put this at 13% in June this year.

That is lower than even South Sudan (16.6%), let alone Rwanda at 30.6%, Uganda (45.6%) and Kenya at 89.4%.

Compare that to Africa’s and world-average penetration rates of 31.2 % and 51.7% respectively.

The IoT signifies quicker and more efficient access to services. If implemented correctly, it can improve the quality of life.

In a World Development Report 2016 background paper titled Digital Dividends, Michael Minges states that a “10 percentage point increase in fixed broadband penetration would increase GDP growth by 1.21% in developed economies and 1.38% in developing ones”.

Think about what that means for South Africa, as a sidebar. Our Internet penetration, as per www.internetworldstats.com, is 54.6%.

We exited recession recently, but could still do with that elusive 5% growth if our internet penetration went up.

Back to Tanzania, the country has been on a solid anti-corruption, better service delivery path since December 2015 when Magufuli took over.

He has distinguished himself as a champion of clean governance and has taken on corruption in both the public and private sectors.

The TCRA has not been sleeping on the job, either; ask Vodacom and its fellow mobile network operators in Tanzania.

After being found guilty of improper Sim card registration, the company was fined more than R8 million, with peers like Tigo and Airtel not off the hook either.

In his July statement on the matter, Kilaba explained his tough action by highlighting that these lapses and “malpractice in Sim card registration in this era when more criminals go digital” and that they pose a threat to public security.

That is probably among the reasons the TCRA proposed these new regulations.

The problem, though, is the risk that in policing the web the government will not overstep the limits and suppress freedom of speech and, more importantly, stifle that much-sought-after economic growth.

Magufuli has a tough task of keeping Tanzanians safe from all forms of terror and crime (including cybercrime) without stifling growth. Here’s hoping he will not regret these regulations, if adopted.

The internet cannot be exempt from law enforcement, but there is a clear and present danger of overenthusiasm.

* Author of Africa is Open for Business and anchor of Power Hour, Monday to Thursday, on Power FM; weekly columnist for African Independent - Twitter Handle: @VictorAfrica

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent