Telecom, Terror and Digital Economy in Ethiopia: Part I

Published on 2nd July 2012

Author’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series entitled Telecom, Terror and Digital Economy in Ethiopia. In this part, I highlight what the proposed Proclamation on Telecom Fraud Offenses states. In part two, I will provide my direct opinions on Ethiopia’s digital economy and suggest ways to move forward by following the lead of other African economies.

There has been a recent buzz through news and social media networks lately on a plan, as initially reported by Al Jazeera, which would criminalize Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) services such as Google Talk and Skype in Ethiopia.

But the story is a half-truth.

The “law” is nothing more than a proposed proclamation that has not yet been called for a vote in the House of People’s Representatives. Theoretically, there is room for edits.

Formally known as the Proclamation on Telecom Fraud Offenses of 2012, it identifies telecom fraud as a “serious threat to the national security” beyond negative economic impacts. The proclamation also mentions that the current legislations on telecom fraud are not sufficient enough to curb the issue.

Telecom equipment, as identified in the document, includes any and all equipment that is used for telecommunication purposes, including accessories and software. Further, the document states that it is illegal to provide telecommunication services without a permit. The offense for this is punishable by 7-15 years.

Interestingly, the law uses the words “license” and “permit” on numerous occasions. What is not immediately clear with the wording is whether or not the Parliament intends on or implies legalizing licensed non-state telecommunication services and equipment.

Article Six of the proposed proclamation deals with anti-terrorism and organized crime. This is on some levels an extension of Ethiopia’s controversial anti-terrorism law passed in 2009. Article Six is perfectly understandable considering the very rough neighborhood that Ethiopia is in and the rise of al Qaeda’s fundamentalist activities in Somalia with al Shabaab. Ethiopia’s national security is very important and cannot be compromised but the government must also wane its power so as to not infringe on the individual rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

The issue in regards to VOIP services such as Skype and Google Talk must be put into context. Ethio Telecom (formerly the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation) is the oldest telecom provider in Africa and has always been owned by the Government of Ethiopia. With over 100 years of history, Ethio Telecom has always held a monopoly on Ethiopia’s digital economy as the sole telecom provider in Ethiopia. Therefore, the government is the sole service provider, operator and regulator.

VOIP was never legal to begin with because it has always been a telecommunication service that was outside of the control of the Government of Ethiopia and Ethio Telecom. Thus, Skype was not “just banned” as foreign news outlets and social media networks have suggested, but it was rather never allowed.

The draft proclamation also seeks the ban of callback services, which is not uncommon in other countries (see Article Eight). Many countries have banned callback services because they deprive local telecom profits. In Ethiopia’s case, Ethiopians do use foreign callback services such as those based in North America and Europe that are much cheaper than the services provided by Ethio Telecom. Consequently, Ethio Telecom loses profits.

VOIP is a solution to the high cost of international dialing. In some cases, VOIP services are free or may charge a nominal fee for usage. On many levels, it bypasses the old callback system.

The question now becomes whether or not Skype and other VOIP services are considered callback. If so, then they are illegal. However, the draft proclamation and other previous legislation certainly imply that Skype, Google Talk, etc., is already illegal (if not already criminalized) since it is a service that is not provided by Ethio Telecom.

The draft proclamation targets owners of Internet cafés and other establishments that allow usage of non-state telecom services (see Article Four) as well as individual users of those services (see Article Seven).

Perhaps where Al Jazeera and other media networks generated the news on a 15-year prison sentence of violating the proclamation is from Article Nine. This article covers offenses that are related to illegal telecom operators, which implies VOIP services. The first section state, “Whosoever bypasses the telecommunication infrastructure…commits an offense…with rigorous imprisonment from 10 to 20 years.” The second section further states, “Whosoever intentionally or by negligence obtains any telecommunication service [this can be interpreted as including VOIP] from an illegal operator…commits an offense.” Article Ten carries on and makes it illegal to provide or obtain telephone calls or fax services through the Internet.

The draft proclamation proposes the establishment of a Technical Taskforce to oversee its implementation, assumedly under the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology. It also allows the Ministry, through the Federal Police, to confiscate illegal items. Additionally, sections of the Telecommunication Proclamation of 1996 and 2002 are repealed if the 2012 proclamation is enacted.

So, about the half-truth: Skype was already illegal and this proclamation that seeks to (further) criminalize it is not a law yet, remaining a draft in the House of People’s Representatives. As usual, foreign media gets it wrong on Ethiopia.

By Samuel M. Gebru

The author is Chief Executive Officer of the Ethiopian Global Initiative. The thoughts articulated here are his own and not reflective of the Initiative.

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