OPINION: Monopoly, not censorship, main threat to Ethiopia telecoms market

The Ethiopian government has been attacked from all sides in the last few months, with shouts of “Ethiopia bans Skype!” from activists and reporters. As it turned out, Ethiopia had not banned Skype or any other service, but was merely looking to crack down on misuse of such services by fraudulent businesses. The real issue for debate here is how the government continues to miss the dangerous lack of competition that continues to hinder the sector.

Ethiopia’s government came under strong fire as reports of its draft Telecom Fraud Offence Bill were interpreted to suggest a total lockdown on Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services such as Skype and GoogleTalk.

Activists and reporters alike immediately rang the alarm, drawing attention in particular to a clause that stipulates a potential 15 year prison term for those who violate the terms of the proposed law.

In the space of a few days, it was widely reported across the internet that all use of Skype, GoogleTalk, and all other VoIP services were illegal in the country, and punishable with up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Ethiopia’s government was further curtailing freedom of speech, freedom of communication, freedom of information – the list of alleged human rights breaches was endless.

But the reports were wrong. What they failed to grasp was, firstly, that the bill had not been passed, and, secondly, that the restrictions suggested were directed only at businesses, in a misplaced attempt on the part of the government to stop illegal internet-based operators from bringing the country’s barely-existent telecoms sector to ruins.

According to officials at Ethio-Telecom – the country’s only telecommunications provider – 83 percent of revenue from international calling services is lost to illegally operating internet-based providers.

The government has not suggested any sort of restriction or ban on private individuals using internet based services such as Skype and GoogleTalk for their own personal use.

Speaking to the BBC’s Anne Waithera, an Ethiopian government spokesperson explained: “Skype is not illegal. What is illegal is using Skype for fraudulent activities such as making unauthorised calls… Some people even come from other countries with their SIM cards and operate here illegally. We need to have regulations, that is standard in all countries. In any business you have to be licensed… This law is in the public interest and the right of individuals to communicate is protected by our constitution.”

Who can contradict that? If we put aside the excitement that can be created through sensationalist misinterpretation, the truth is that business does need regulation, and most countries in the world do regulate the telecoms business sector. If properly implemented, where is the problem in a government imposing a ban on unlicensed operation of internet-based phone services – which are intended to undermine a legally operating economic activity?

Incredibly, what everyone failed to pick up on was the complete misdirection of the government’s efforts to protect its telecoms sector. Wanting to protect revenue from illegal operators is entirely innocent, but what the government should be doing if it wants an active telecoms sector is to open up the market to competition. Therein lays the real issue.

Ethio-Telecom is not only the country’s only telecommunications provider, but it is 100 percent state owned and operated.

No doubt the government does want to protect its income from fraudulent commercial operators: but the funds saved through implementing more stringent regulations are not going to achieve the economic benefits to be had from opening up a free and competitive telecoms market. This is the real problem with the legislation – the country still has not provided for a free-market.

On a related note, and one of more concern, is the revelation by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) that Ethio-Telecom may have installed a system for blocking user’s access to the Tor network, which enables anonymous browsing and a loop-hole for accessing blocked websites.

The RSF website explains that in order to block selected sites in the first place, Ethio-Telecom must be using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) – a cutting-edge system which allows for filtering across a network.

Once again, the system is often used for purposes such as blocking terrorist sites, or sites with other inappropriate content (child pornography). But the fear is in the Ethiopian case that network filtering may be used to stifle political communication following the important role the internet played in the Arab Spring uprisings.

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