Sounds like something you might hear if you travel to North Korea or another country with a repressive dictatorship. However, this is now the case in a country that has been fairly popular with travelers; Ethiopia. Ever since opening an account back in 2006, we have enjoyed using Skype to stay in contact with friends and family around the world and as communications technology has continued to advance, more and more people are connecting with one other and doing so with relative ease. To officials in Ethiopia though, this is a problem severe enough to warrant a 15 year jail sentence. That’s right. In essence, the Ethiopian government has banned the use of Skype within the country, although a government spokesman told the BBC that using Skype is not illegal, but making unauthorized calls on Skype is, whatever that means.
There are a few possible reasons behind Ethiopia’s crackdown on voice over internet protocol (VoIP) services like Skype and Google Talk. First, services like Skype allow for cheap communication. Even if you don’t own a personal computer, the increased prevalence of internet cafes throughout Africa and the rest of the world mean that more and more people have access to one. In Ethiopia, where the economy is growing at a fast pace, people are migrating to the cities and frequent the many internet cafes in Addis Ababa to stay in contact with family in the countryside and abroad. Unfortunately, to the national telecommunications company, Ethio Telecom, which maintains a virtual monopoly over telephone communications, services like Skype threaten their bottom line. Skype is an exponentially cheaper if not free means of communication compared with Ethio Telecom’s services, whose rates many believe are exorbitant to begin with.
Instead of embracing new technology and finding ways to incorporate it into the future development of the country, the old guard, who continues to profit from antiquated practices, has made the use of newer technology illegal. It’s not the first time technological advances have been criminalized in Ethiopia. In the 1990’s satellite dishes were illegal and so were credit cards, although more recently, these restrictions have been relaxed. As far as the internet is concerned, despite Ethiopia’s improving economic situation, it still lags far behind many other developing countries in Africa in terms of its “wiredness,” and placing draconian restrictions on the internet and a popular internet service certainly won’t help Ethiopia become more connected. In fact, it may actually turn off foreign investors that could further contribute to Ethiopia’s economic development.
Business motives aside, there is also a much more nefarious reason for Ethiopia to block VoIP; censorship. The internet is an extremely efficient way to transfer information and Ethiopia has a long history of trying to control the flow of information inside its borders. In recent decades, Ethiopia has been marked by violent conflict and intense political rivalry. Censorship isn’t anything new. Freedom of the press has been severely restricted and over the past decade, and Ethiopia has driven more journalists into exile than any other country during that time. Next to its neighbor Eritrea, Ethiopia has also jailed more journalists than any other African nation according to a report published by the Committee to Protect Journalists. With the print media already under its control, the government has endorsed the new law banning internet audio and video communication “for national security reasons.” According to Reporters Without Borders, there have been numerous instances of independent and opposition party websites being blocked and recent crackdowns in internet cafes, but as more and more people gain access to and start to utilize internet technologies, government opponents and international supporters have been able to circumvent many of the government censors by using services such as Skype which can’t be easily monitored.
As a result, Ethiopia has turned to the pros for advice. Al Jazeera reports that China and Ethiopia recently held a joint media workshop to discuss “internet management.” In the interim, while the government tries to identify a technological solution to their “problem” such as Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), they have resorted to intimidating people into not using the service by threatening them with a lengthy jail sentence.
So, if you’re planning on traveling to Ethiopia anytime soon, take warning. A popular activity that you take for granted could land you in some serious trouble. Hopefully in the future, the winds of political change will sweep over Ethiopia as they have in Eastern Europe and in nearby Saharan Africa. If not, maybe one day the government’s view towards new technologies like the internet will change as they did with satellite dishes and credit cards; as Salvador Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Times put it, “perhaps Ethiopia will change its stance on Skype and VoIPs in general 15 years from now—which should be right around the time the first wave of Skype criminals would be getting released.”