Tuesday, June 12, 2012

New Ethiopian law criminalises Skype, installs Internet filters

Africa Review

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.

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