The truth about Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) in Ethiopia
(MoFA) JUne 22, 2012--
The technical phrase, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), literally the use of free or paid telephony service over the Internet, has created a considerable media buzz over the past couple of weeks in news coverage of Ethiopia. The term gained near house- hold usage within a matter of days on what was in fact a totally unfounded, and ridiculous, claim that Ethiopia had banned telephony using Skype, Google talk and other Internet usages in a draconian law passed by parliament. As the news was carried by some major media institutions, including Al Jezeera and the BBC, as well as the more usual offenders, this was sufficient for some to claim that the country had moved further in a downward spiral into areas where its inhabitants are incarcerated incommunicado. Gallons of ink were spilt over the week to declare Ethiopia as a place where freedom to receive and impart information had been curtailed in a most absolute form.
The news went viral with the assistance of the usual social media commentators who seldom bother to check their sources or their information. Self-proclaimed cabals of human rights advocates were quick to label this “eerie” proclamation as the last nail in the coffin of freedom of information. Indeed, the backlash of violent comment from various quarters was shocking, if not entirely surprising, in terms of its magnitude and its fervor to jump onto this extensive smear campaign bandwagon. It is something that has, after all, happened before.
There is only one problem with all of these claims and comments: the whole story is quite simply untrue. Despite all the assumptions made that this was a ‘done deal’, the fact is that the allegations are simply false in their entirety. The whole story, and its ramifications, is a very clear example of the recklessness of journalists who failed to check even the most basic fact about the alleged proclamation. And that is that the alleged law has not even been considered by the relevant parliamentary committee let alone enacted as law. All that has happened is that a draft version was tabled for discussion. This, it might be noted, means that any changes to unclear provisions can still be made, as can outright changes or revisions.
Secondly, it is also apparent from a reading of the draft (something that few if any commentators appear to have bothered to do) that it does not actually ban usage of voice internet protocol services. Irrespective of possible revisions, the draft proclamation itself doesn’t make any such suggestion and it is hard to see how this can be deduced from the draft. The draft doesn’t suffer from the usual legal problems of obfuscation and lack of clarity. It is actually plain even to the most untrained eye. The draft’s relevant article 10(3) doesn’t prevent the use of VoIP for personal use. It is all about the use of internet telephony for commercial purposes. The wording of the article which includes references to “whosoever provides” and “five times the revenue” are a clear indication that the provision is aimed to regulate usage of Internet services for commercial use in places known as “Internet cafes”. The provision is, in fact, intended to control service providers, many of whom operate without paying taxes for the revenues generated through these services.
“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.
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 2 years and with fine from Birr 2,500 to Birr 20,000”
It is quite clear that these two articles refer to the provision of a business providing telephone calls or fax services over the Internet. It might be added that the legality of banning the independent provision of telephony services is hardly a matter of dispute. The state-owned organization, Ethio Telecom has the unquestioned legal authority over the provision of telephony and Internet services. Any Internet service provision unauthorized by Ethio Telecom is illegal. Nor, it might be added, is this anything new. It was banned by law nearly a decade ago, though there have, in any case, been no reports of any prosecutions from that legislation.
In other words the stories and rumours of the last two or three weeks are, to use a fine Americanism, just plain hogwash, no more, no less.