The intent of the law
Asked about the intent of the law and its potential to clamp down on communication, a government spokesman, Shimeles Kemal, told a Reporters Without Borders representative that ''the compelling reasons behind the promulgation of this law are technological progress and the alarming increase in the incidence of illegal telephone services that bypass the national network, posing loss of revenue and national security risks". He said his government wished to create no new offences however rather to address telecoms-related fraud that could not have been dealt with in accordance with existing laws.
It was wrong to assume that this law was intended to regulate media content by all means, Shimeles said, adding: ''It should be viewed as a legal framework that addresses the serious national security issues highlighted by the increasing merger of telecoms services with the Internet. Content-related matters are dealt with by our media laws.''
''The law was never meant to criminalize VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) services just as Skype or others'', he told Reporters Without Borders ''Neither did it aim to restrict any-Internet-based voice service that takes place between PCs, PC to phone and Internet-based phone-to phone services. Had this been the case, the agency could have used existing laws to ban VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) and charge users in court."
Reporters Without Borders notes that an previously order, No. 281/2002: "Proclamation to Provide for the Amendment of Telecommunications Proclamation" presents a danger to all users of Internet-based voice communication. Amendment 11 of the current 2002 law, in accordance with which no one has been convicted or sentenced but, makes all communication by fax or voice via the Internet illegal and liable to a fine or a prison sentence of up to five years.
Reporters Without Borders nevertheless believes that the 2012 Proclamation on Telecom Fraud Offences at this stage worded currently is disproportionately vague and could be applied to severely restrict the use of VoIP, ensuring the Ethio-Telecom network retains its service monopoly and maintains its revenue levels. The criminal law should be precise and be interpreted, we believe, as unambiguously as possible to protect people's right to communicate using VoIP services.
The risks for individuals cannot be underestimated
The risks for individuals cannot be underestimated. Article 5 of the second section of the bill, covering offences of illegal interception and access, provides for up to 15 years' imprisonment and a fine for anyone who "without the authorization of the provider or lawful user, or any other competent authority ... illegally obtains access to any telecommunications system".
In addition, article 6 of the second section of the bill specifies that anyone who uses the telecommunications network or apparatus to disseminate any "terrorizing" or "obscene" message, or uses the infrastructure for "any other illegal purpose" could be liable for a penalty of up to eight years' imprisonment. The vagueness of this wording is a cause for concern. Broad interpretation of the 2009 anti-terrorism law has already led to the arrest and sentencing of journalists to long prison terms.
Article 10, paragraph four, can be understood to mean the provision and use of VoIP services, whether on purpose or "by negligence", are offences punishable by up to two years' imprisonment.
The internet commits an offence
(Paragraph 3/"Whosoever provides telephone call or fax services through the internet commits an offence and shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 3 to 8 years and with fine". Paragraph 4/ "Whosoever on purpose or by negligence obtains the service stipulated pursuant to this agreement sub-article of this Article commits an offence and shall be punishable with imprisonment from 3 months to 2 years and with fine".)
This article could have serious implications for Internet cafes and their clients. Internet cafes are the main point of Internet access for Ethiopians. The country's connection coverage is in the extreme low - around 0.7 percent. Any measures designed to restrict VoIP use in Internet cafes would have an adverse effect on a considerable number of Ethiopian Internet users.
The ministry would have excessive powers not only over businesses and institutions nevertheless also over individuals since the bill requires anyone who uses or holds any telecommunication equipment first to obtain a permit. Cases where this is waived are an exception.
Lastly, it is regrettable that the draft has no safeguard clause designed to protect freedom of expression and excluding the use of VoIP from the bill's scope.
Telecomunication Proclamation No 281/2002oip
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