“The issue of Internet freedom and national security is not only an Ethiopian problem”

In an interview with 2016 CGCS visiting scholar Till Waescher, 2016 Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute participant Halefom Hailu Abraha, deputy director of legal and policy affairs at the Information Network Security Agency (INSA) Ethiopia, discusses the thin line between regulating online content and freedom of expression in a transitional country, the effects of old anti-blasphemy laws for the online realm, and the role of national Internet Service Provider Ethio Telecom.

Ethiopia has the second largest population of all African countries, yet its internet penetration rate is only 12 percent. Still, the country has arguably one of the most sophisticated internet regulatory regimes in the region. 2016 Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute participant Halefom Hailu Abraha is a cyber law and policy researcher, and deputy director of legal and policy affairs at the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), Ethiopia. In an interview with fellow participant and 2016 CGCS visiting scholar Till Waescher, Halefom discusses the thin line between regulating online content and freedom of expression in a transitional country, the effects of old anti-blasphemy laws for the online realm, and the role of national Internet Service Provider Ethio Telecom.

 

With over 80 ethnic groups and more than 90 languages Ethiopia is the most diversified country on the African continent. What are the biggest challenges when it comes to internet content regulation in your country?

The internet is the greatest tool for advancing causes of democracy and civil liberties. However, it is not without challenges and problems. When it comes to content, the internet provides unlimited access to useful resources, while at the same time, it also serves as a platform for harmful or illegal content such as hate speech, sexually explicit content especially child pornography, defamatory statements, terrorist propaganda, extremist, radicalizing, and racist materials. While recognizing that the benefits of the internet far outweigh its negative aspects, these are public policy concerns which cannot be ignored.

Even though there is a general consensus that harmful or illegal materials are widely available on the internet and accessible regardless of frontiers, there are no acceptable standards and definitions as to what constitutes harmful or illegal content on the internet as this is largely shaped by existing constitutional values and policies, and varies based on different cultural, moral, religious, historical, and legal notions.

These problems and concerns of illegal or harmful content become all the more salient in deeply diversified societies like Ethiopia that are transitioning to democracy. Ethiopia is home to over 80 ethnic groups that practice diverse cultures, traditions and religious denominations. While it is widely recognized that Ethiopia remains a unified polity where various ethnic and religious groups have co-existed peacefully for centuries, the increasing access to online contents contrary to the established cultural and religious values of the society might soon emerge to the public.

The biggest challenge when it comes to internet content regulation in Ethiopia is, therefore, to develop and implement an effective online content regulatory framework which promote safer online environments, encourage the use of the internet in harmony with Ethiopia’s ethnic, cultural, religious and social diversities, while at the same time protecting free speech.

 

Almost half of Ethiopian internet users are under 25 and they are very active on social networking sites. Describe the relationship between the government and companies like Facebook and Google. How do the regulatory bodies deal with political speech voiced on social media?

To my knowledge, there is no formal relationship between the Ethiopian government and major internet companies like Facebook and Google regarding online content regulation. The absence of formal cooperation with internet companies coupled with fragmented or outdated legislations make content regulation in Ethiopia more complicated. In this regard, the recently adopted cybercrime bill, which incorporates a provision dealing with international cooperation, might be helpful in the future.

 

There is only one Internet Service Provider, Ethio Telecom, which is owned and operated by the Ethiopian state. Are there plans or demands from civil society actors to liberalize the telecommunications market?

There have been demands and pressures, especially from the West, on the Ethiopian government to liberalize the telecommunications market. Some civil society actors also criticize the status quo on the ground, arguing that the underperformance of the Ethiopian telecommunication sector is attributed to the public monopoly and lack of competition.

On the other hand, the Ethiopian government takes a firm stand not to open up its telecommunications sector any time soon, the primary reason being that the telecom sector is the primary source of income to finance mega projects such as the railway and telecommunication infrastructure development in high-cost rural areas.

The government has also been claiming for a long time that privatization of the sector will not fall in line with the government’s development program which aims to expand access to ICT services to all rural areas.

In this regard, the government has shown strong commitment to improve the infrastructure and create an enabling policy and regulatory environment, and argues that what matters is not the monopoly policy per se, but how and to what end the monopoly is used. Therefore, I do not think that the government has a plan to privatize the telecommunications sector at least in the short run.

 

There are a total of five government institutions dealing with the regulation of cyberspace in Ethiopia. While they have different objectives, ranging from cybersecurity, online video, and web advertising, all of them have the legal authority to regulate online content. How does content regulation actually work given these overlapping competences? Can you give an example of a concrete case where one or more of these regulatory bodies were involved?

The present regulatory environment in Ethiopia is sector-specific approach because telecommunications and broadcasting are regulated by separate authorities and subject to scattered pieces of legislations. The distinction between traditionally separate sectors of telecom, ICT and broadcasting is now blurred as we can make telephone calls, watch television, and share music on handheld devices such as smartphones via the internet.

This digital convergence poses challenges to existing governance functions as it makes regulatory overlapping inevitable. It also creates regulatory uncertainty of new service created by digital technology such as the internet. Therefore, even though I cannot give you specific examples at this point, studies indicate that redundancy of regulatory responsibilities and power overlap is another challenge that regulators face in Ethiopia.

 

According to Ethiopian criminal law, it is illegal to criticize “divine being(s), religious symbols, and sacred materials.” How is this rather vague formulation applied to decide whether to regulate online content?

As I said earlier, Ethiopia is home for diversified traditions and religions. In such a situation, some kind of regulation is necessary so as to maintain the harmonious life of the society. In this regard, the law prohibits religious blaspheming, not criticism per se, in a place open to the public or that can be viewed by the public. But, taking the diversity of traditions and religions in the country, the problem with this law is that it is unclear what the religious symbols protected from being blasphemed really are. Who decides that and on what basis? As this law was initially designed to regulate offline activities, it is difficult to apply to the online environment. So, applying such kind of laws to regulate online content may have chilling effects and my recommendation would be interpret it narrowly or amend and specify existing laws to accommodate technological changes.

 

Western media outlets such as Vice have called the state of the Ethiopian internet a “tragedy.” Human Rights Watch, in a report from 2014, accused Ethiopia of using online surveillance and censorship to clamp down the opposition. How do regulatory bodies balance internet freedom and national security concerns in an ethnically fragile country as Ethiopia?

I cannot give you detail information on the status of online surveillance or censorship in Ethiopia because I am not a technical expert on that. But the issue of internet freedom and national security is not only an Ethiopian problem. It is rather currently the focus of intense international debate. I think the biggest challenge for all governments across the world today is to strike the right balance between internet freedom and other legitimate interests such as national security and law enforcement.

As a young democracy, these challenges are more pressing in Ethiopia. On the one hand, the government has legitimate national security and law enforcement interest that cannot be ignored. On the other hand, the government has a duty to respect constitutionally guaranteed rights including internet freedom. This is a challenging job and requires, among other things, a robust legal and regulatory framework that ensures adequate level of protection while at the same time enhance public security and law enforcement interests in Ethiopia.

 

 

Halefom Hailu Abraha is a cyber law and policy researcher, and deputy director of legal and policy affairs at Information Network Security Agency (INSA), Ethiopia.  He obtained LLB in law from Mekelle University, Ethiopia and Master of laws (LLM) in Information Technology and Telecommunications Law from University of Southampton, UK.

 

Till Waescher is a PhD candidate at the School for International and Intercultural Communication (SIIC) at TU Dortmund University, and a research fellow at the Institute for Media and Communication Policy (IfM), Cologne, Germany. In his dissertation he examines political communication strategies of transnational privacy advocacy groups in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks. Till Waescher completed his masters’ studies in Political Science at the University of Potsdam and in American Studies at Free University, Berlin, Germany. Parallel to his academic career, he has been a frequent contributor to German online media outlets and was involved in various media policy consulting projects in Germany. His research interests include Social Movement Communications, Surveillance Studies, Media Concentration, and Media Policy.

 

 

Featured Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by SarahTz

  1. My interview at 2016 Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute | Ethiocyber Laws

    […] In an interview with 2016 CGCS visiting scholar Till Waescher, 2016 Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute participant Halefom Hailu Abraha, deputy director of legal and policy affairs at the Information Network Security Agency (INSA) Ethiopia, discusses the thin line between regulating online content and freedom of expression in a transitional country, the effects of old anti-blasphemy laws for the online realm, and the role of national Internet Service Provider Ethio Telecom.  available at http://www.global.asc.upenn.edu […]

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