Why Does Ethiopia Want to Give People 15 Years in Jail for Using Skype?

One of Africa's biggest economic success stories, the country is also one of its least wired. This new law and other, increasingly draconian restrictions are a sign of how far it still has to go.

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An Ethiopian businessman reads the news on his computer. (AP)

A new law in Ethiopia criminalizes the use of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services such as Skype or Google Talk, the latest in this East African country's increasingly tough Internet restrictions. Getting caught can carry a prison term of up to 15 years, the severity of which is perhaps meant in part to deter Ethiopian web users from trying to simply get around the ban, for example with proxy servers.

The two commonly cited explanations for the law are "national security" (read: tough to monitor) and to protect the Ethiopian government's state-owned telecommunications service. Ethio Telecom is a monopoly, and much-despised for its expensive calling rates, especially internationally. Skype and Google Voice provide cheaper, or often free, ways to place calls. Ethiopia's Internet penetration rate is the second-lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa, but the country's economy is booming, its cities expanding, and its middle class growing.

Those factors tend to coincide with higher rates of Internet access -- both because more people can afford it, and because internal migration (moving from a town to a city to find work, say) make long-distance communication more important -- but not yet here. Criminalizing a popular Internet service isn't likely to do much to make Ethiopia more wired, nor will it likely attract many of the foreign investors who are otherwise blanketing Africa and accelerating its rise.

Ethiopia's odd ban, and the draconian punishment for violators, is in some ways symbolic of the rising African power's challenge: to continue its growth into the new Ethiopia -- wealthier, freer, more peaceful -- and leave the old, autocratic, militarized, Ethiopia behind. Government officials may or may not have had anything more than Ethio Telecom's profit margins in mind when they implemented this new law, but whatever the motivation, it is symptomatic of the tension in Ethiopia between the new ways and the old.

Africa's second-biggest country by population, Ethiopia has had a tough few decades. It was devastated first by a brutal 17-year civil war, exacerbated by outside meddling when it became a Cold War proxy fight, that ended only in 1991. As with so many civil wars, it weakened the economy greatly and filled the government with whoever could best enforce order. The country began to democratize, then fell back again during a 1998-2000 border war with neighboring Eritrea.

The past decade of peace and stability has allowed Ethiopia's economy to flourish, with an amazing, almost China-like growth rate of 8.4 percent annually from 2001 to 2010, making it the world's fifth fastest-growing economy over that period. It's estimated to continue growing at 8.1 percent annually from 2011 through 2015. But Ethiopia has also been re-adopting its old, China-style political restrictions, including crackdowns on political dissent (a 2010 Economist Intelligence Unit report announced it had started classifying Ethiopia as "an authoritarian regime" as it has become "a de facto one-party state"), free speech, and, yes, Internet freedom.

A recent Reporters Without Borders investigation found that Ethiopia had started blocking access to the Tor Network, a popular tool for using the Internet anonymously, something the NGO says is only possible with "Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), an advanced network filtering method" that is "widely used" by countries "such as China and Iran ... to easily target politically sensitive websites and quickly censor any expression of opposition views." Al Jazeera English, in reporting the VoIP service ban, noted that the Ethiopian and Chinese governments recently held a "media workshop" conference in the former country's capital, where "Internet management" was allegedly among the topics discussed.

The new Ethiopia is a much better place than the war-torn Ethiopia of the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and early '90s. But the bad habits of the old Ethiopia -- declaring pro-democracy parties such as Ginbot 7 to be a "terrorist organization," say, or imposing jail terms for using Skype so that people will stick to the easily monitored state-monopoly services -- are still around.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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