The Next Frontier for Internet Censorship

The Next Frontier for Internet Censorship

Ethiopia’s government is increasing online restrictions, a move that may slow the country’s economic progress while underscoring the need for an Internet Bill of Rights.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is now criminalizing Skype and Google Talk in addition to censoring blogs and news websites. Using voice-over-Internet-protocol services like these may cost people fifteen years in prison under Ethiopia’s new law.

The prime minister outlawed VoIP connections for “national security” reasons as well as to protect the government-owned Ethio Telecom service. The monopolistic provider, famous for expensive calling rates, has suffered since citizens began chatting for free on Skype.

Zenawi has been darkening websites since 2005 but recently imported a “far more pervasive and sophisticated blocking system” called Deep Packet Inspection to target VoIP connections and dissidents’ web pages.

“I think what’s different now is that we’re also seeing individual Facebook pages being blocked, and they say that softwares like Tor and proxies that many Ethiopians use to access those sites regardless of the censorship are now not working either,” said CPJ spokesman Danny O’Brien.

O’Brien and other CPJ reporters warn Zenawi’s censorship may slow the country’s economic growth rate, which averages about 8.1 percent annually. Ethiopia’s citizens have flourished for the last decade, thanks in part to mobile and Internet connections, relying on mobile and online tools for banking, health and safety purposes.

Programs like the mFarmer Initiative Fund identify crop diseases via cell phone photography, while the KickStart layaway program is helping small business owners manage their financial resources.

Ethiopians may soon follow their Kenyan neighbors in using Twitter to fight crime, even as mobile malaria treatment programs keep sick people in both countries alive.

But Ethiopia’s ruling party may negate all this progress if it continues to sever digital lifelines. Without a free Internet, mobile apps are unlikely to survive for long, as censorship measures may discourage developers from updating or creating new software. Furthermore, CPJ journalists believe Ethiopia’s repressive tactics will attract the attention of neighboring authoritarian regimes like Sudan.

“Whatever tools of Internet suppression Ethiopia imports will surely be rolled out by other authoritarian governments in Africa,” CPJ warns.

Should this happen, African countries could soon resemble Syria, Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian regimes in terms of Internet repression.

Syria’s Basshar al-Assad now tracks citizens who use any kind of social media site, building a record against them for eventual arrest, while Saudi Arabia may execute a man charged with tweeting about atheism.

Thailand recently jailed a woman for hosting illegal comments on her website, following China and Iran’s example in cracking down on those who criticize the government online.

These countries’ citizens, along with Ethiopians, may benefit from an “Internet Bill of Rights” like the one recently introduced by websites like TechDirt and Freepress. Their “Declaration of Internet Freedom” suggests unfettered online access is a human right, echoing the United Nations’ statement on this topic last year.

This kind of citizen response is unlikely to impact Zenawi’s censorship campaign in the short-term, but it may heighten worldwide awareness about the economic dangers of darkening Internet access.

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