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Ethiopian government clarifies intent of ‘Telecom Fraud Offences’ draft law

June 24, 2012  »  Business & NewsNo Comment

Last week, it was widely reported the Ethiopian government was to ban the use of Skype under penalty of years in prison. However, since the bill was  published online, the intent of the law has become more clear – at least on the surface. One thing is for certain: no one is legally going to be imprisoned for 15 years for Skyping. And, law from 2002 already limits VoIP communications. The government has even (surprisingly) issued a statement via phone interview with select journalists explaining the reasons behind the law. Danielberhane’s blog has a transcript:

The [draft] law aims to restrict internet telephone activities, not between telecom activities from computer to computer, but it aims to restrict unlicensed service providers who use internet to provide telephone services from internet to telephone lines. The aim of the regulation is not aimed at restricting IP and cyber activities. Nor did it intend to restrict computer to computer services.”

According to the Ethiopian government, the draft law intends to prevent telecom fraud activities. Circumventing Ethio Telecom’s hardware, software, or services in any way constitutes a crime. In fact, the government claims a loss of more than 50 million USD this year alone due to independent operators. The government’s statement elaborates, adding:

What the law aims at prohibiting is the fraudulently using telecom servers of bypassing it for purposes of generating income or defrauding income which should Ethio Telecom should earn. There is no prohibition of people calling abroad on Skype from internet cafes or elsewhere.”

Interpretation of the law is still a big question mark, especially considering a 2002 law that prohibits voice communication over the Internet. Many deny this law has ever been enforced, but its presence nonetheless has set the tone for a lack of Internet freedom. Article 10 (4) of the recent draft appears just as ominous, even if it again is directed mainly at businesses and not consumers:

Whosoever intentionally or by negligence obtains the service stipulated under sub-article (3) of this article [telephone call or fax services through the internet] 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.”

The Ethiopian government is quick (and correct) to mention that there is no mention of 15 years imprisonment for the use of Skype. However, per Article 10 (4), anyone circumventing Ethio Telecom to make a VoIP call is subject to punishment.

Still, the real issue is that Ethiopia continues to censor and prevent access to the Internet. Hundreds of websites remained blocked within the country. Ethiopia, despite having a large population and a relatively large GDP, has one of the lowest tele-densities in Africa. Skype ban or not, the numbers don’t suggest a government focused on creating a knowledge-based society.

A scanned copy of the 7-page draft has been shared via Google Doc. We’ve uploaded a PDF here.

For the latest updates on the Ethiopian VoIP scene, head over to Danielberhane’s blog.