Ethiopian VoIP draft law comes as no surprise
ethio telecom is born from this ambition of supporting the steady growth of our country. We wish to implement state-of-the-art processes, to develop reliable network infrastructures and to provide the best quality of services to our Customers. This is our mission; this is what drives all our actions.” – Ethio Telecom company mission and values
By now, the world knows of Ethiopia’s draft law enacted on May 24th that essentially bans the use of VoIP on two grounds: “national security” and attenuated telecoms profits. (The Atlantic does a fine job explaining why the ban exists.) Threats of years in prison for violators are certainly harsh, but are difficult to enforce. Our takeaway isn’t that the law exists (albeit in draft form) but that it has taken so long for the general public to learn of how Ethiopia is limiting online communication. Although little can be done at the moment to change the law (partly thanks to China’s willingness to invest in Ethiopia’s ICT development and since legislators may or may not listen to public opinion), the first step to resolution is understanding the problem and then raising awareness.
The delayed dissemination of this information serves as an example of how disconnected the world is from African nations who have a limited media footprint. By our count, it was exactly three weeks before a major news outlet pushed this story that potentially affects millions of Ethiopians (and diasporans). In comparison, through the power of the English-language Ethiopian blog scene, we were able to hear about the Ethiopian Telecom Service Infringement Law on May 28th. Endalk’s Blog even acknowledges the “scant media attention” given to the new law. Who is Endalk? A lecturer at Arba Minch University (450km from Addis) who has an interest in new media. Endalk never once mentioned Skype – the ostensible impetus for international media to jump on the story. And, even if he had, only 1% or so of Ethiopians access the Internet and many services have been blocked throughout the years.
We’re exceedingly glad the news got out to international media, and even better yet, gained thousands of Ethiopian end-user sympathizers from around the globe. The headlines helped; who can imagine being jailed 15 years for doing something as mundane as using Skype? In most jurisdictions it takes felony murder to earn such a harsh sentence.
However, we find a few parts of the recent focus on Ethiopia’s Internet situation very interesting. Most interesting is the unique timing of releasing the telecommunications law draft – it was issued only days before Ethiopia’s National Day on May 28th celebrating the fall of the Derg junta in 1991.
The timeline of the past month for Ethiopia’s Internet is below, with notes:
- According to Tor (virtual tunnel network), Deep Packet Inspection actually began sometime around May 14th – approximately 10 days prior to the new law. The timing appears very strategic.
- News that ZTE of China bid $1.3 Billion for a contract with ETC appeared on May 23rd – one day before the law was enacted. The company, based in Shenzhen, is competing with Huawei Technologies Co. for work that will include boosting the capacity of Ethiopia’s mobile-phone network to 50 million subscribers in 2015 from 20 million now.
- Perhaps most interesting is how Ethio Telecom relaunched 3G service sometime around May 26th. Coincidence, or not? (The positive news certainly distracted us from thinking so hard about the VoIP ban.)
- Ethiopian leaders met with Chinese officials on June 2-3 to discuss China’s experience regarding mass media capacity building, mass media institution management and Internet management. (The Chinese government, through a 1/3 stake in telecoms company ZTE, have worked with Ethio Telecom for the past six years.)
- The 5th ICT Exhibition, Bazaar, and Conference with the motto of ”ICT: a gateway for growth and transformation” was held from June 6-10. The title is conspicuous given the lack of press freedom. Plus, the government press release touted its UN e-government ranking as increasing from 111th place to 81st in only one year.
- As the result of a Reporters Without Borders story on June 7th, the press generally caught wind of the Tor blockage a couple of days before word of the potential Skype ban got out.
- News of the VoIP law accelerated once Al-Jazeera’s “The Stream” began coverage on June 14th. Other outlets seem to have picked up the story at the same time. As an aside, we noticed the title of the Al-Jazeera article is “Ethiopia: Skype me maybe”- a play on the current #1 song on the US music charts. We’re not keen on grouping Ethiopian press censorship with teenage love, even if it does spread awareness of a meaningful cause.
Why (unfortunately) the new law – draft or not – doesn’t come as a surprise:
The news of the draft law comes as no surprise to those in the know considering Ethio Telecom operates as a monopoly. Internet censorship has existed in some form for years, so an official ban on VoIP isn’t so extreme considering how dissident bloggers are jailed and social media is routinely monitored.
- Reporters Without Borders has delivered consistent coverage of ETC. In 2008, Ethiopia made the group’s “Enemies of the Internet” list.
- A 2011 Freedom House report cited how Ethiopia has instituted one of the few nationwide filtering systems in Africa and has passed laws to restrict free expression.
- Also in 2011, TechCrunch exposed the atrocities of ETC, mentioning how the entire blogspot.com domain is blocked, along with various Facebook pages and newspapers.
- Ethiopia’s Oromo diaspora actively uses the Web to dissent/debate in absence of press freedom and will likely be undeterred to communicate with those inside Ethiopia’s borders.
- In April 2012, the Ethiopian government blocked many prominent websites for a period of days. Global Voices Online points out how large media sources like Huffington Post and The New York Times have stepped up their coverage of Ethiopian press censorship.
- Markos Lemma, Ethiopian tech entrepreneur and blogger, makes a sound point that ETC can block hundreds of blogs, no problem, but will face challenges once that number grows to 10,000+. They will then have to make the fateful decision of whether or not to permanently block an entire domain (ie. blogspot.com).
- VoIP activity in cybercafés could be causing ETC to lose 83% of its revenue from its international call business due to illegal operations by service providers.
Perhaps Ambroise Pierre of Reporters Without Borders Africa best sums up the fear of the new law:
We’ve had in the past certain cases of blocking websites of independent and opposition parties, so censorship isn’t new – but now it’s a new stage, and what Reporters Without Borders is worried about, is that [by criminalizing] communications by Skype, the government is implementing a system to have a general policy of internet control.”
Will any Ethiopians be jailed under the new law? Will Ethiopia have a harder time censoring the Internet as the number of users grows from 1% to 5% over the next couple of years? How beneficial will Chinese companies be to Ethio Telecom’s bottom line? Can Ethiopia’s GDP continue to grow without the government having to soften policies to encourage more foreign investment? Stay tuned.