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Skyping in Ethiopia Could Result in Stiff Jail Term

By Erika Morphy
Jun 18, 2012 11:11 AM PT

Ethiopia has passed a draconian new law criminalizing the use of Voice over Internet Protocol services such as Skype or Google Talk. People who violate the ban will find themselves facing 10-to-15 years in prison. The government has cited national security as a reason, although it is widely assumed that protecting the market share and revenue of the state-owned telecom provider, Ethio Telecom, is also a driver -- if not the main one.

Skyping in Ethiopia Could Result in Stiff Jail Term

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

Deep Packet Inspection Put to Ill Use

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

"DPI will be used to monitor enforcement of this new rule, because it can recognize the ports and channels that are used for VoIP communication," he said.

In general, DPI is a helpful technology when used properly, Wisdom added, largely because it works well to protect corporate networks from 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 laws to implement this rule, Wisdom observed.

"There are ways to circumvent deep packet inspection monitoring," he explained. "It is a continual cat-and-mouse game between activists and hackers and repressive governments."

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

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

"I can't see the government wanting to throw the book at a grandmother talking with her grandchild in the United States, for example," said Wisdom.

It is also unlikely the government would want the negative publicity that would surround jailing an international aid worker for a decade because he was using Skype to communicate to the home office in the country -- another possible scenario, given the level of international assistance Ethiopia continues to receive.

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

Corruption and Ethio Telecom

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

It's a "you scratch my back I will scratch yours" relationship, Wisdom said. "The current government has a vested interest in keeping them happy, so I could see it not being too pleased by alternative and competitive forms of communication available in the market."

There are other methods to make low-cost phone calls without violating the country's new ban, , however -- at least they are available for now.

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

KeKu can still operate despite the new law because it doesn't require an Internet connection on the caller or recipient's part, CEO Manlio Carrelli told TechNewsWorld.

"Our customers are able to talk with their friends and family in Ethiopia because we connect them just like a regular international call, but at a tiny fraction of the cost," Carelli said.

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

"Someone in New York City could obtain a unique local 718 area code number for each of their family members back home," he explained. "The customer's phone company treats this like a local call."

Then, the KeKu technology automatically connects the call to the right international number. --END--

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