On May 24th, a law passed in Ethiopia criminalized the use of Google Talk and other forms of VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), with steep penalties for the use of the popular platform Skype, according to Al Jazeera.
The law allows for a prison sentence of up to eight years and a fine of up to 80,000 birr (US$4,500) for “using or causing the use of any telecommunications network or apparatus to disseminate any terrorizing message”. The punishment for using an official Internet calling service is even more harsh, with violators facing a potential 15 years in jail, the African Review reports. The legislation comes as the popularity of computer-to-telephone call services is expanding in Addis Ababa and some regional cities. This popularity is due in part to the significantly cheaper use of these services for communication in comparison to high charges imposed by the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation (ETC) — the state run, sole ISP of the nation. Ethiopia’s legislators argue that this trend has threatened profits in addition to being an issue of national security.
Ambroise Pierre, head of the non-profit organization’s Africa Desk, said the measure is really intended to restrict and monitor the flow of communication in and out of the country. “The Ethiopian government is trying to attack every means of information exchange,” Pierre said.
“We condemn the Ethiopian government’s systematic effort to control all forms of communications,” said CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. “Authorities are obviously deeply threatened by any source of independent information, from critical journalism to sharing of information online.” The result of continued telecommunications regulation has led to an overall decline in the country’s Internet users – less than one percent [700,000 of 84,000,000 citizens] of Ethiopia’s population had Internet access in 2010.
Over the last five years, websites expressing any criticisms of the Ethiopian government have been frequently blocked along with all Amharic language broadcasts containing any libel targeting the current political regime. The state-owned Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation (ETC) and the Ethiopian Telecommunication Agency (ETA) have exclusive control of Internet access throughout the country. Further, the ETA does not act as an independent regulatory body, and its staff and telecommunications policies are controlled exclusively by the national government.
In 2006, Ethiopian Internet cafes mandated users to input a user ID, which included the patron’s full name and residential address. Information obtained through this registration process was then documented by police officials. Adding insult to imposition, Internet cafe owners faced jail time for not following the protocol and providing access for unregistered users.
The most recent move of banning all VoIP communications has only recently garnered international attention. Furthermore, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology has reserved the right to license private organizations that produce, distribute, or import such technology.