Legal threat to Skype users

Johannesburg, 24 Mar 2004

People using peer-to-peer (P2P) 'network bypass` software to make cheap international telephone calls over the Internet may yet face action for illegal practices.

According to Andrew Weldrick, senior manager for media relations at Telkom, the incumbent is currently the only operator licensed to carry and land international voice traffic, although the second national operator (SNO) will have the same rights once it is granted its licence.

"As far as Telkom is concerned, 'network bypass` software is illegal and - although it is difficult to police - if we feel there has been a transgression in this regard, we can investigate and file a complaint with the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA), and it will then take the necessary legal action," says Weldrick.

It is estimated that thousands of South Africans have downloaded the Skype software program, which is available free and allows users to make international calls from the Internet at no extra cost, although the full extent of its use in SA is unknown.

Developed by the same people that created the KaZaa P2P music file-swapping network, Skype`s only operating cost is for users to allow their computers to become part of the P2P network and provide processing time for the routing of other calls on the network.

Weldrick says that while this technology has not had any significant impact on Telkom`s revenues at this point, the company will be keeping an eye on the issue and will seek legal redress if it feels this is necessary.

"Given that our revenue for outgoing traffic is not a large part of our overall revenue, we are not overly concerned at present, but in terms of a legal and regulatory perspective, this remains a key issue, as it is an infringement of our rights."

Laws need overhaul

Ray Webber, spokesman for the Communications Users Association of SA (CUASA), says that according to the law, this practice is illegal and anyone using this technology is doing so at their own risk, as the monopoly would be fully within its rights to take legal action.

"However, the realities of technology development mean that the law is, in effect, lagging behind and we feel the whole Telecommunications Act needs a serious rethink, because technology has moved on since the Act was promulgated," says Webber.

"CUASA is definitely in favour of this and we believe this is the point of the draft Convergence Bill - we hope the final Convergence Act will help to resolve a lot of the issues that surround new technology such as this."

He says people should be allowed to experiment with new technologies, and technology growth and development should not be stunted because of laws that are badly in need of an overhaul.

"People should have the choice of whether they want to use this technology or not. After all, if I invent a car that can run on half the petrol an ordinary one uses, I shouldn`t be prevented from using it just because it will affect the revenues of the big petrol companies," he says.

"Ultimately, CUASA`s position on this is that people should not use this technology now as it is patently illegal, but they should band together to lobby for changes to be made in legislation that would result in such programs being declared legal."

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