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Skyping in Ethiopia could result in 15 years of prison

Call me maybe, but not via the Internet in Ethiopia.

As if it’s not enough that we’ve bid our goodbyes to Skype, here’s another reason to begin boycotting the service. Under a new legislation passed by Ethiopian laws, a 30-second Skype call made in the African country can land you in 15 years of jailtime, reports Al Jazeera. Citing issues of national security, the Ethiopian government states that any Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) services, including Google Voice, will now be considered criminal offense.

The drastic new law, recently passed at the end of May, was claimed necessary in order to protect the country from security threats. However, experts are calling other factors, such as VOIP services hurting state-owned telecommunications carrier Ethio Teleco and limiting freedom of expression, the true reasons.

“Internet cafes may be allowing people to make calls for far less than the cost of Ethiopia telecom, the state’s telecommunications provider that has the monopoly and charges very high prices — and doesn’t want to have its service undermined,” former BBC Ethiopia correspondent Elizabeth Blunt told BBC.

When citizens use VOIP services to make affordable calls, they also block authorities from monitoring these online activities. “Skype can’t be listened to so easily and can’t be controlled,” Blunt said. 

Furthermore, the law continues to prohibit much of online communication, including video chatting, social media, and even e-mail (the above photo was taken in 2005). If citizens are found making calls over the Internet, they could face up to eight years of prison plus fines. Illegal phone services like Skype and Google Voice carry heavier punishments of up to 15 years in jail and larger fines.

Ethiopia is currently the second lowest Internet-penetrated country in sub-Saharan Africa, the first being Sierra Leone. Approximately 700,000 of Ethiopia’s 85 million citizens had Internet access in 2010, reports Internet filtering and censorship watchdog OpenNet Initiative. As of 2006, those who accessed the Web via Internet cafes were also required to register their name and address so the government can track down online illegal activities. Even though e-mail service websites, major search engines, and VOIP service homepages are not currently blocked in Ethiopia, a draconian punishment is likely to keep citizens clear of online forms of communication.

However, there may still be hope for such technology in the future, claims the blog Transforming Ethiopia. “Having a television satellite dish was a criminal act in Ethiopia 15 years before,” the post states. “Ironically, even low-cost houses built by the government, dubbed condominiums, are now swarmed by the devices.”

The blog also noted that credit cards were also considered illegal for some time. “Both examples show the distrust that the Ethiopian state has always had towards technological advancement.”

If so, we could only wonder how the first jailed citizens of VOIP users would feel when they get out of prison 15 years from now to find Skype possibly legal.

Image Credit: Flickr / Charles Fred