Updated: Wednesday, June 20, 2012
New York (TADIAS) – Do you skype? If you reside in Ethiopia you could do some serious jail time for using the popular online phone service. According to a new telecommunications law that criminalizes VoIP, violators could face up to 15 years in prison. The rule, which appears to be intended to control the press, now extends to all Ethiopian citizens. Not surprisingly, the legislation is raising eyebrows around the world.
In an article entitled Using Skype in Ethiopia Could Land You in Jail, PC Magazine noted that only 360,000 people, or 0.4% of the nation’s 82 million citizens, had online access in June 2009 and that internet even in Addis Ababa is often slow and unreliable. Yet the country has one of the harshest anti-Internet laws in the world.
In another story, The Los Angles Times offered advice for those traveling to Ethiopia, alerting potential tourists to watch out for the online cops. “If you use Skype, you could be there 15 years,” the newspaper wrote.
And given Ethiopia’s recent efforts to project the country as an attractive investment destination, the The Atlantic Magazine mused: “Why Does Ethiopia Want to Give People 15 Years in Jail for Using Skype?” The magazine noted that one of Africa’s biggest economic success stories, Ethiopia is also one of its least wired. “This new law and other, increasingly draconian restrictions are a sign of how far it still has to go,” the publication observed.
The BBC was more succinct “Ethiopia clamps down on Skype and other internet use,” the broadcaster declared.
In a recent post on the Global Voices website, Ethiopian tech blogger Markos Lemma, features an interview with Geraldine de Bastion, a Berlin-based international consultant on information and communication technology discussing the state of social media in Ethiopia. “From what I experienced during my first visit to Ethiopia is that there is a big demand for information and communication in general and social media are being discovered as one means for people to have their say,” Bastion said. “Because of the low internet penetration, social media at present is reserved for the few who do have access — but this small social media community is using social media platforms such as Facebook and twitter in creative ways to further information exchange.” She added: “However, the influence of citizen media on political decision making is not yet visible — mainly because of the lack of Internet penetration and lack of ability to reach a broad audience within in the country. Also, there is a sense of fear of repression against critical voices although many bloggers are still navigating under the radar of those in power.”
According to Bastion, the Ethiopian government is also now undertaking deep packet inspection of all Internet traffic. “They compare this kind of action to the censorship and spying on private communication conducted by China, Iran, and Kazakhstan,” she said. “With the Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation still being the sole telecommunication service provider in Ethiopia, there is no way to escape the eye of the state for Ethiopians online.”
Authorities justify the new measure on the basis of national security, but considering that less than 1% of Ethiopia’s citizens have internet access this law seems an overreach.