By Getachew Teklu
If you’re heading to Ethiopia sometime soon, I’d like to offer you one small but crucial bit of advice: Don’t get on SKYPE. It will cost you 15 years in prison. Not a bad deal for cheap talk.
The government of Ethiopia has just passed new legislation that criminalizes the usage of Internet-based voice communications such as Skype, Oovoo, and other systems that fall under this category.
The reason for this new law is because of the constant and ever increasing security threats globally and especially in Ethiopia. However, many believe that this is a way to limit freedom of expression.
Anyone who does commit the crime of internet-based voice communications will be prosecuted and could be jailed for up to 15 years, or heavily fined if found guilty.
The two commonly cited explanations for the law are “national security” (read: tough to monitor) and to protect the Ethiopian government’s state-owned telecommunications service. Ethio Telecom is a monopoly, and much-despised for its expensive calling rates, especially internationally. Skype and Google Voice provide cheaper, or often free, ways to place calls. Ethiopia’s Internet penetration rate is the second-lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa, but the country’s economy booming, its cities expanding, and its middle class growing.
Those factors tend to coincide with higher rates of Internet access — both because more people can afford it, and because internal migration (moving from a town to a city to find work, say) makes long-distance communication more important — but not yet here. Criminalizing a popular Internet service isn’t likely to do much to make Ethiopia more wired, nor will it likely attract many of the foreign investors who are otherwise blanketing Africa and accelerating its rise.
As for Skype and other VoIP services, the new law doesn’t just criminalize their usage, but the Ethiopian ministry of communication and information technology now has “the power to supervise and issue licenses to all privately owned companies that import equipment used for the communication of information.” It’s worth noting that, as TechCentral points out; the new law also prohibits “audio and video data traffic via social media.” It’s not clear how exactly the government plans to enforce this restriction, but a potential 15-year prison term will likely keep most people from using Skype in Ethiopia anytime soon.
Reporters without borders also report that Ethio Telecom installed a system to block access to the Tor network, which allows users to surf the Web anonymously. The organization notes that the ISP must be using relatively sophisticated Deep Packet Inspection to filter out this traffic.
According to Internet filtering and censorship watchdog open Net initiative, Ethiopia currently has the second lowest Internet penetration rate in sub-Saharan Africa and just around 700,000 of the country’s 84 million citizens had Internet access in 2010 (that’s the most recent data we could find). The average Internet speed in Ethiopia, says Akamai, is currently 622 kbps.