The world wide web was awash with news reports of alleged ban of VOIP services by Ethiopian in the past week.
One of those was Al-Jazeera’s news brief that stated:
A new law in Ethiopia has criminalized the use of VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) services such as Skype. Users could face up to 15 years of jail time. The law was passed May 24th, but the story wasn’t picked up by international media until recently.
The story was erroneous, however.
To begin with, the said ‘law’ – A Proclamation on Telecom Fraud Offences – is only a draft and only passed the first reading stage of the legislative process to date. This stage is more of procedural and hardly deals with the contents of a draft legislation.
Secondly, the closest thing to a prohibition of Skype in this draft law is found in Article 10 sub-article (3) and (4) that state:
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.
I tell you, with my lawyer hat, that these two articles concern a business entity providing telephone call (to a landline or mobile phone) and fax services using the internet. And, also, individuals using that business service.
A related noteworthy thing is that there is a 2002 legislation which states: ‘The use or provision of voice communication or fax services through the internet are prohibited [punishable with imprisonments]’.
I consider that legislation as prohibiting PC to PC communications even between private users via Skype, Google-Talk and the like. (as indicated in a previous post 6 months ago (here)). However, others argue that it concerns only calls made to a telephone line.
Either way, there has been no reports of prosecutions based on that legislation to date. In fact, internet cafes in the Capital provide these services. Though, several businesses providing international calls using various technologies, unauthorized by Ethio Telecom, have faced closure and criminal charges in the past decade.
On top of that, the wording/phrasing of the VOIP related articles in the current draft law is narrower than that of the 2002. This can not be accidental.
At any rate, I say: A law banning the personal use of Skype would be as frivolous as a jaywalking law. So, Skype me? Indeed!
That is assuming I will manage to download Skype – which is blocked – and be able to afford the high tariff charged by Ethio Telecom. Not to forget, the poor connection that makes Skype-ing no better than e-mail correspondences.
Of course, the legislation has other concerning elements; such as, a prohibition on possession of Telecommunication equipment, including software and accessories, without permit – except those ‘types of Telecommunication equipment’ exempted by the list to-be-drawn by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology. There is also a vague provision on ‘Offences related to interception and access’.
It is expected these and other provisions to be clarified and/or modified by the parliamentary Standing Committee currently reviewing the draft legislation. A thorough discussion will be provided in this blog based of the version of the draft legislation that the Committee releases for public deliberation (or before that if it fails to do in a few weeks time).
Deferring a thorough review of the draft law, until the parliamentary committee releases an official version of the draft, is prudent, as the draft legislation was apparently a few weeks work – following EthioTelecom’s recent petition to the Ministry of Justice for a stronger measure against telecom frauds. Well, unless it could be shown that Ethio-Telecom’s petition was a Trojan Horse to push a harsh legislation long in the making. It is also likely that it was rushed in the hope of tabling it before the parliament recesses for about three months around July 6. Moreover, most of the things punishable under the draft legislation has already been so in prior laws.
Though the media rush to make unverified claims, which is obviously based on remarks from some local politicians/activists, is disturbing, it is the Ethiopian government’s inability and unwillingness to provide info mainly to be blamed. Strangely, officials in Addis were as informed as the guy on the street regarding the matter in the past week.
Updated on June 18 – 11 pm
* A few grammatical corrections have been made to the text above.