The government of Saudi Arabia has announced that it plans to lift its ban on online apps which enable users to make VOIP calls over the internet.
The ban, which has been in place across Saudi Arabia and several neighbouring Gulf states has been in place since 2013. They were implemented at a time when the Arab Spring saw people rising up against autocratic regimes across the region, with most protests being organised online.
The VOIP ban in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia was largely spared this challenge, despite being home to one of the most oppressive regimes in the regime. But even so, the Saudi government decided it should take steps in case their people got the same ideas as others in the region. Hence, the ban on various online services including Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Viber.
Many Saudi’s also suspect that there was another motivation behind the ban too. They believe there was a desire to protect the monopolies of state telecoms companies. A considerable chunk of their income would have been threatened if VOIP calls were legalised, especially from overseas calls.
Of course, many Saudi’s and expats living in the country have been getting around this ban for years by using a VPN. But now the Government has announced that it is to be lifted.
The Announcement unravels
Whilst unexpected, the announcement was broadly welcomed by commentators and the Saudi people. In the wake of consistently low oil prices which have hit the Saudi economy hard, it was seen as being part of a broader range of reforms to try and diversify the economy and open the country up to more international investment.
But it has taken just a few days for the announcement to unravel. Firstly, the reality of the situation in Saudi doesn’t yet match the rhetoric. There currently appears to have been no change in the availability of any of the services affected, with both Facebook and Viber confirming they were still blocked in the country.
Then there are the comments that have been made by Adel Abu Hameed, spokesman for the Saudi telecoms regulator, the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC). Speaking on Arabiya TV he, rather bizarrely, claimed that the changes were being made to protecting users’ personal information and ensure illegal content was blocked.
But when asked if his body would be monitoring use of the apps, he said: “Under no circumstances can the user use an application for video or voice calling without monitoring and censorship by the Communications and Information Technology Commission, whether the application is global or local.”
How will they monitor and censor VIP apps?
In other words, the Saudi regime is unblocking these services but is planning to monitor everyone who uses them and censor any content it deems illegal.
For those who welcomed the initial announcement, this was definitely a backward step, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions. Principally, this revolves around how exactly the Saudi regime plans to monitor and censor content on services like WhatsApp.
WhatsApp employs end-to-end encryption on all communications meaning that no-one can see what messages send on the service contain, never mind censor specific bits. This is a power that many other governments around the world have been pushing for recently but without success. It seems highly unlikely that the Saudi’s have found a way now.
So, despite an official announcement, the situation around VOIP communication in Saudi Arabia remains as hazy as it was before. Officially, these apps are unblocked, but none of them actually work yet. The Government then claims that all activity on them will be monitored and censored, which is impossible to do.
For people living in Saudi Arabia, such a situation is common and most will take matters into their own hands. While the Government agonises over what to do, they will continue to use VPNs to access whatever online content and services they want, whenever they want.