New Ethiopian law criminalises Skype, installs Internet filters By ARGAW ASHINE | Tuesday, June 12   2012 at  16:53

The popular Skype is one of the internet phone services affected by Ethiopia's new telecommunications law. PHOTO | FILE 

The Ethiopian government has passed new legislation that criminalises the use of Internet-based voice communications such as Skype and other forms of Internet phone calling.

Authorities have also installed a new filtering system that monitors the use of the Internet in the tightly-controlled Horn of Africa country in a move seen as targeting dissidents.

The telecoms law strictly prohibits VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) which includes audio and video related social media communication, and the transfer of information packages through the fast growing global cyber networks.

It also authorises the government to inspect any imports of voice communication equipment and accessories, while also banning inbound shipments without prior permission.

Anyone involved in "illegal" phone calling services will be prosecuted and could be jailed for up to 15 years or fined heavily if found guilty.

Making an Internet phone call through different software is punishable by three to eight years-- automatically criminalising Skype and other similar voice services.

The government in the law's introductory annex defends such legislation as a timely and appropriate response to the ever increasing security threats globally and in Ethiopia.

But observers say the law is aimed at further limiting freedom of expression and the flow of information in the nation of 85 million people.

In the last five years websites and blogs critical of the government have been frequently blocked and all Amharic language broadcasts targeting Ethiopia jammed.

According to experts, traditional telecommunication, including GSM ( a form of mobile telephony network), can be easily wiretapped while this is not the case with most VoIP systems such as the popular Skype.

"VoIP differs from other forms of telecommunications with respect to confidentiality of the communication. This gives rise to a problem due to the existence of a constitutional right of anonymity and the protection of traffic data and content," Mr Alemayehu Fantaw, a Horn of Africa legal and crisis expert at New York City University, said.

Any attempt to ban social network media by a sub-Saharan Africa country including Ethiopia should be seen in the context of the Arab Spring uprisings in which such communication was vital in organising the protests, he added.

But the government, in its explanation further said the law is aimed at avoiding illegal telephony and fraud.

According to officials, state monopoly Ethio-Telecom has been losing 83 per cent of its income from its international calling business due to the illegal operations of private service providers.

The century-old Ethio-Telecom is directly affiliated to the security and intelligence wings of the government.

The law was passed by a parliament dominated by the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which controls 99.6 per cent of the house.

Anonymously

The Ethiopian government has also has installed an advanced internet filtering tool known as Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) which provides for the barring of access to the Tor-Network, a globally-known online tool that allows users to browse anonymously and access blocked websites.

According to a statement by media watch dog Reporters Without Borders(RSF), by installing DPI and blocking access to Tor, the Ethiopian government is probably taking a first step towards putting up a sophisticated filtering system that will eventually enable it to intercept emails, messages on social networks and Internet voice conversations.

By installing DPI, Ethiopia joins "enemies of the internet"-listed countries such as China and Iran, the group said.

Three years ago, Ethiopia endorsed an anti-terrorism law which significantly restricts political space and has left opposition politicians and media facing a spate of prosecutions.

Two months ago, the monopoly state-owned printing house Birhanena Selam Printing Enterprise enforced a new contract with publishers that authorises it to censor the content of newspapers prior to publishing.

Last week the Chinese Communist Party and Ethiopia's ruling EPRDF held a high level workshop in Addis Ababa focusing on media and internet management.

According to EPRDF spokesperson Sekoture Getachew, the workshop aimed at gleaning lessons from the Chinese Communist Party on the better use of media for national development.