Skyping in Ethiopia Could Result in Stiff Jail Term

Ethiopia has passed a draconian new law criminalizing the use of Voiceover Internet Protocol services such as Skype or Google Talk. Peoplewho violate the ban will find themselves facing 10-to-15 years inprison.The government has cited national security as a reason, although it iswidely assumed that protecting the market share and revenue of thestate-owned telecom provider, Ethio Telecom, is also a driver — ifnot the main one.

Another assumption is that the government wants to keep a tight gripon its political opponents and hence the ban, Jason Wisdom, CEO ofWisdomConsulting, told TechNewsWorld.

Deep Packet Inspection Put to Ill Use

Ethiopia is among a handful of nations, including China and Iran, thatis deploying deep packet inspection technology to spy on its citizens,noted Wisdom.

“DPI will be used to monitor enforcement of this new rule, because itcan recognize the ports and channels that are used for VoIPcommunication,” he said.

In general, DPI is a helpful technology when used properly, Wisdomadded, largely because it works well to protect corporate networksfrom intrusions.

In the hands of an extremist government armed with vague laws, though,it can be an effective tool to rein in dissent, he said.

In this case, Ethiopia is using its broadly worded antiterrorism lawsto implement this rule, Wisdom observed.

“There are ways to circumvent deep packet inspection monitoring,” heexplained. “It is a continual cat-and-mouse game between activists andhackers and repressive governments.”

However, with a possible 10-to-15 year jail term as punishment in thebackground, it is questionable whether many people unschooled inhacker technologies will even try.

Whether the Ethiopian government will enforce the law against ordinarycitizens is still an unknown.

“I can’t see the government wanting to throw the book at a grandmothertalking with her grandchild in the United States, for example,” saidWisdom.

It is also unlikely the government would want the negative publicitythat would surround jailing an international aid worker for a decadebecause he was using Skype to communicate to the home office in thecountry — another possible scenario, given the level of internationalassistance Ethiopia continues to receive.

Still, the law is on the books, and even if the intent is to limit itsapplication to political dissent, that could quickly change.

Corruption and Ethio Telecom

It is important not to underestimate the symbiotic ties between thegovernment and the country’s telecom provider.

It’s a “you scratch my back I will scratch yours” relationship, Wisdomsaid. “The current government has a vested interest in keeping themhappy, so I could see it not being too pleased by alternative andcompetitive forms of communication available in the market.”

There are other methods to make low-cost phone calls without violatingthe country’s new ban, , however — at least they are available fornow.

One is provided by the international calling service KeKu, across-platform technology app that offers free calls from app to app,along with low-rate calls to landlines and mobile phones. It isactive in more than 180 countries and said to be very popular inEthiopia.

KeKu can still operate despite the new law because it doesn’t requirean Internet connection on the caller or recipient’s part, CEO ManlioCarrelli told TechNewsWorld.

“Our customers are able to talk with their friends and family inEthiopia because we connect them just like a regular internationalcall, but at a tiny fraction of the cost,” Carelli said.

The company gives customers a local number, say in the U.S., for eachnumber in Ethiopia that they call.

“Someone in New York City could obtain a unique local 718 area codenumber for each of their family members back home,” he explained. “Thecustomer’s phone company treats this like a local call.”

Then, the KeKu technology automatically connects the call to the rightinternational number.–END–

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