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Ethiopia’s Ban on Skype: An Excessive Stretch

Reply to: Ethiopia Shows That Congress Is Right to Be Worried About UN Control of the Internet post on June 20, 2012

Most international Medias picked the story wrong. And I see it being repeated. It is true that there is some legislative initiative regarding the regulation of VoIP calls and mainly the telecommunication sector in Ethiopia. But the initiative is just a draft, noting more. Besides there is no such a thing as 15 years punishment in the draft law for using Skype. Here are the provisions in the draft law that are stretched in many news headlines to bemoan that the use of Skype in Ethiopia entails 15 years punishment.

Article 10(3) – Whosoever provides Telephone call or fax services through the internet commits an offence and shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 3 to 8 years and with fine equal to five times the revenue estimated to have been earned by him during the period of time he provided the service.

Article 10(4) – Whosoever intentionally or by negligence obtains the service stipulated under sub-article (3) of this article commits an offence and shall be punishable with imprisonment from 3 months to 3 years and with fine from Birr 2,500 to Birr 20,000.

Hope now you know that there is no 15 years punishment for using Skype in Ethiopia. Indeed the above draft provisions in someway prohibits the use of Skype. But it is worth recalling that there is a 2002 law Telecommunication Proclamation No. 281/2002 that states:

‘The use or provision of voice communication or fax services through the internet are prohibited [punishable with imprisonments]’.

So in the eyes of the 2002’s legislation the new draft legislation is way too liberal. The 2002 legislation was a blank prohibition to any internet based calls including PC to PC but the new draft law prohibits only telephone calls (to a landline or mobile phone) and fax services using the internet. The addition of the term ‘telephone call’ in the new draft legislation couldn’t be accidental. More importantly, there has been no reports of prosecutions based on the 2002 legislation to date. But there are reports that businesses providing international calls using various technologies, without authorization, have faced closure and criminal charges since the law is enacted. The story unfolds this way not because the government wanted it to be but due to arduous task of monitoring individuals’ internet traffic. But with businesses, the government can resort to intensive unautomated monitoring and inspection mechanisms. The government was, thus, mainly targeting businesses offering such services. I see no difference this time.

Whether this should be the case in the first place is another story that can be debated. I personally do not see the reasons cited by the government (the concerns of security and cut into the government revenue in telecom business) are better off with the current draft law. I doubt that the current Internet use in the country is posing such threat. According to 2011 Internet World Statistics, Ethiopia is home only to 622,122 Internet users, which is 0.7% of the total population. The lion share of this number, 511,240, goes to Facebook users. Thus, there is no adequate data indicating that the government is losing revenue for the wider usage of VoIP communications. This is even so assuming that with the existing poor connection someone is able to download Skype and to make calls.

Concomitantly, at the risk of stating the obvious, the government should be reminded the cost of implementing such legislation instead. The Internet architecture is designed in a way to treat packets indiscriminately. It does not distinguish a Skype call from e-mail, fax from YouTube video. Consequently, the government has to retain and inspect every packet of the Internet traffic inorder to know who is making Skype call or fax services over the Internet. Trying to achieve this, with the lack of expertise we have, is unbearable costly, if bearable at all. I am afraid the revenue of the telecom would end up just covering the expenses of Chinese expertise rather. Let’s not forget also the devastating consequence it could have on attracting foreign investors. Imagine an investor who is lured by the generous land grab in Ethiopia coming across the news, as picked by many International Medias, that he or she could be busted for up to 15 years for using Skype in Ethiopia, no matter how true that is in fact.

In addition, it is undeniably true that VoIP services have associated security risks. But I personally believe that security concerns can better be dealt by liberalizing the sector. That would enable the government to share the burden of retaining, monitoring and tracking culprits with the providers. The Ethiopian government’s approach seems the wrong way of dealing with it. It is like killing to cure approach. The use of Internet in general have similar kind of risks, if that could justify its ban. But in the 21st century, you can’t afford to ban the internet for fear of security risks as you don’t ban sex for fear of HIV. We have to manage the risk how difficult that might be.

Meanwhile stretching that Ethiopia’s regulation of VoIP services and Telecommunication, should the law is implemented, can reinforce the UN takeover of the Internet is too far. If Ethiopia could show the Congress and perhaps the Internet community is Right to Be Worried about UN Control of the Internet, it should have been through the harsher 2002 legislation, not now. If that could have a clout in the global Internet governance, many governments have done that. Yet noting is changed in that respect.

For your view here is the draft legislation:

By Samson Yoseph Esayas, Researcher at the Norwegain Research Center for Computers and Law

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