Ethiopia’s New Cybercrime Law Allows for More Efficient and Systematic Prosecution of Online Speech


 

The Ethiopian government has passed a dangerous cybercrime law that criminalizes an array of substantive computer activities including the distribution of defamatory speech, spam, and pornography online among others offenses. The law, dubbed the “Computer Crime Proclamation,” was passed, the government says, in an effort to more accurately attune the country’s laws to technological advances and provide the government better mechanisms and procedures to “prevent, control, investigate, and prosecute the suspects of computer crimes.”

While the law aims to facilitate and accelerate the way in which the country penalizes computer crimes, it criminalizes legitimate forms of online speech. Based on the law’s exhaustive list of offenses and penalties that are grossly disproportionate to the outlined crimes, it will undoubtedly have a chilling effect and could serve as a tool for silencing political opposition, which relies heavily on online publishing since the government has cracked down on traditional media.

EFF is all too familiar with Ethiopia’s track record of silencing bloggers, human rights defenders, political dissenters, journalists, and activists. Endalk Chala, a founding member of the Zone9 blogging collective, former EFF Google Policy fellow, and Global Voices contributor has firsthand knowledge of the Ethiopian government’s M.O. in exerting control over its people online.

The Ethiopian government considers access to Internet an exclusive right of a chosen few—the people who are running the government and their friends. The new computer crime law is the latest legal mechanism set to be used to limit access to Internet services for the majority. The government is attempting to make blogging, content sharing, and even liking critical comments on social media all crimes.

Take, for example, the particularly egregious article 13, related to Crimes Against Liberty and Reputation of Persons. Those convicted of disseminating defamatory content, as defined by the law, face up to 10 years in prison.

The law also targets service providers; if they fail to remove or disable access to illegal content data that has been disseminated through their computer systems by third parties they will be held criminally liable. The law requires service providers to report any knowledge of the commission of any of the crimes stipulated in the law. Protection for intermediaries in the US (under CDA 230) has been essential to the growth of social media and blogging platforms. If Ethiopian intermediaries lack that protection, it will have a strong chilling effect on free speech—few intermediaries will risk hosting content the government may find controversial.

Ethiopia’s prosecutors have long demonized legitimate uses of technology, claiming in court that the use of encryption, and knowledge of privacy-protecting tools is a sign of support for terrorists. Ethiopia’s new cybercrime law takes that a step further. By criminalizing everyday actions it ensures that anyone who speaks online, or supports online free expression, might one day be targeted by the law. This regulation doesn’t bring Ethiopian law up-to-date with the latest technology: instead, it will intimidate ordinary Ethiopian citizens into staying offline, and further alienate Ethiopia’s technological progress from its African neighbors and the rest of the world.

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