The thought of a communication technology becoming illegal sounds preposterous at first, but that doesn’t mean it’s totally impossible. In fact, a serious consideration to severely limiting or outright banning VoIP service providers is already given in one country, Ethiopia, and censored or otherwise limited in a number of other nations. True, none of these countries experience the level of freedom, and specifically the level of freedom of speech, that we enjoy in the United States, but their bans on VoIP clearly showcase how a seemingly innocuous technology reverberates with heightened political and economic meaning.
The legal implications of providing VoIP service in a country where it is limited or outright banned are significant. In Ethiopia providing a VoIP service can result in a jail sentence. What is the legal justification for this exorbitant response to logging on to Skype? Apparently VoIP services divert a whole lot of revenue from the state-owned telecommunications monopoly Telcome.
Insane, right? But Ethiopia’s response to the world-wide spread of the internet isn’t nearly as isolated as we like to think, as even mega-powers like China openly practice a high degree of online censorship. As crazy as it might sound, websites such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Blogspot are totally inaccessible in China (unless of course you’re utilizing a workaround like a VPN service).
Looking over these banned websites and communication services one thing becomes clear- even though their use is labelled a threat to national security, none of them are overtly political in nature. Yes, Google and Yahoo can be used to find potentially radical information, Facebook and Twitter can be used to organize oppositional political groups, and Blogspot and WordPress can host controversial political blogs, but none of these websites offer the only online methods for producing trouble for these nations.
The truth is clear and obvious- from a political perspective, banning a VoIP service like Skype on the grounds it allows unfettered communication with the rest of the world is total nonsense, especially considering the fact most oppositional movements are locally and not internationally coordinated.
So why are these countries banning communication technologies such as VoIP services if their political rationales are dubious at best?
It’s easy to say Ethiopia puts people in prison for 15 years for using Skype because the government is scared of free speech, but it’s much more likely Ethiopia has criminalized VoIP services because the country’s government owns the country’s existing telecommunication systems and wants to kill the competition. We know for a fact that China places limitations on freedom of speech within their country for openly political reasons, but their ban on Facebook and Google might have just as much to do with the fact the massive country wants to shelter and encourage the growth of its own home-grown social networking sites and search engines.
When you realize the economics lies behind the major reasons why VoIP and other communication technologies have been banned in other parts of the world it becomes clear our own access to these technologies might be a little more tenuous than we like to believe.
Of course the United States government is not going to put a ban on VoIP. But “money talks” and large communication companies have the cash to spend to try and muscle out alternatives to their service through legislative means.
VoIP service, like all far reaching communication technologies, are powerful, important, and worth protecting. Choosing to protect these services may not seem like an overtly political act, but there’s something incredibly necessary about making sure we all enjoy the technological options required to experience freedom.