World News

03.29.13

Saudi Arabia: The Internet’s Enemy Cracks Down on Skype, Whatsapp, and Viber

Infamous for the severe measures it uses to crack down on alleged security threats, Saudi Arabia is now picking on web-based communication apps, which teens rely on heavily for daily contact. Vivian Salama reports.

Skype, Whatsapp and Viber are subject to a ban in Saudi Arabia, as it demands the rights to monitor all communications via these web-based communications apps.

Despite a medley of applications now available to help Internet users avert such a ban, the kingdom declared that it would block the services within its borders unless the operators grant the government surveillance rights. The companies have until Saturday—the start of the Saudi workweek— to respond to Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), local news reports said.

While Saudi Arabia is infamous for taking authoritarian measures to crack down on perceived security threats, it has increasingly shifted its attention toward the telecommunications sector in recent months. The CITC announced in September that all pre-paid SIM card users must enter a personal identification number when recharging their accounts and the number must match the one registered with their mobile operator when the SIM is purchased. The country’s second-largest telecom company, known as Mobily, was temporarily banned from selling its pay-as-you-go SIM cards after it failed to comply with the new regulations.

“A proposal for a ban would be driven by political and security concerns as opposed to economic concerns,” said Aiyah Saihati, a Saudi businesswoman and writer. “The Saudi government is refraining from taking an extremely authoritarian style dealing with its critical youth population. Saudi may try, without censorship, to find ways to monitor communications.”

As revolution gripped much of the Arab world in 2011, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, spearheaded a counterrevolution—working to appease its critics with monetary and political concessions, while suppressing protests via brutal crackdowns. Reporters Without Borders lists Saudi Arabia as an “Enemy of the Internet,” saying last year that “its rigid opposition to the simmering unrest on the Web caused it to tighten its Internet stranglehold even more to stifle all political and social protests.”

In the Middle East, three taboos have traditionally drawn the greatest level of censorship: religion, sex, and politics. Like several other Arab countries, Saudi Arabia has long implemented a ban on pornography and films or websites that show sex or nudity. It blocks content that is insulting to Islam, threatening to ban YouTube last year for carrying Innocence of Muslims, the low-budget film that sparked violent protests across the Muslim world for its insulting portrayal of the Prophet Muhammed.

While content that undermines the authority of the Saudi ruling family has always been restricted, the government has become increasingly sensitive to online dissidence, fearing it could incite uprisings the likes of those in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and neighboring Bahrain.

“We are not able to date the way people do in other countries so we rely a lot on these apps to meet new people,” Abdulla, 18, said. “These services gave our lives some balance.”

“I don’t think the ban is going to happen, but if it goes ahead, then the users will find other programs,” said Ismail Patel, a GCC research analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media. “It’s more that the government is flexing its muscles and showing that they’ve got their eyes of the country.”

It has yet to be seen whether Saudi Arabia will carry out the proposed bans or—as some local reports suggested—whether the companies themselves would strike a deal with the government. Requests for comment to Skype, Whatsapp and Viber were not immediately returned. In 2010, former Skype Chief Executive Josh Silverman told Dow Jones that the ban in the Middle East is “short-sighted.”

“The Middle East is important for Skype,” Silverman said. “We know they want to use our software, and we want to help them.”

Other Gulf nations including Oman and Kuwait block Skype, although residents have found ways to easily get around the bans via proxy servers. In the United Arab Emirates, the business hub of the Arab Gulf where foreigners make up some 80 percent of the population, a longtime ban on Skype was eased only in recent weeks. The U.A.E. shocked its residents in October 2010 when it announced that it was suspending Blackberry services because “certain BlackBerry services allow users to act without any legal accountability, causing judicial, social, and national security concerns for the U.A.E.,” a government statement said.

An 11th hour decision averted the ban, but the government declined to provide any details behind the negotiations. Some analysts link the bans to lost revenues for state telecom companies like the U.A.E.’s Etisalat and Saudi Telecom Company, since Skype allows users anywhere in the world to speak for free. However, some suggest that stricter regulations could result in greater losses—Saudi telcos citing potential revenue losses of up to 20 percent following the new SIM card regulations.

“Revenue is a concern for operators,” said Patel. “They can’t beat the tidal wave coming from the side of content so the only thing that the operators can do now is to try to entertain some kind of partnership with these companies.”

In Saudi Arabia—where 60 percent of the population is younger than age 30—youth rely heavily on web-based communications tools like Whatsapp and Blackberry Messenger to circumvent restrictions against the public intermixing of men and women. Imran Abdulla, a university student in the coastal city of Jeddah, says he was set up with his girlfriend via a Whatsapp introduction—and they used the texting application for four months before meeting in person. “We are not able to date the way people do in other countries so we rely a lot on these apps to meet new people,” Abdulla, 18, said.  “These services gave our lives some balance.”