Apps like Skype and WhatsApp could be blocked because they do not meet the regulatory requirements and laws in Saudi Arabia, the Communication and Information Technology Commission (CITC) said today. The regulator said in a statement it has asked licensed mobile operators in the country to work with developers of these apps to ensure that they meet the regulatory requirements.
“CITC reiterates that it would take suitable measures against these apps and services if they fail to meet the requirements,” CITC said in the statement published Sunday by the official Saudi Press Agency. “We are keen to encourage companies to provide the latest services that meet the requirements of the licenses they have been granted. Additionally, CITC puts great emphasis on users privacy and its protection.”
CITC said it has taken this step as part of its mission not only to regulate the communications sector but also to “preserve values and principles” and “protect society of any negative aspects that could harm the public interest.”
The statement attracted mockery and anger by Saudi users on social media who said it represents a veiled threat to ban the apps. The vague statement did not say what are the requirements these apps are expected to meet, and comes only one day after the English-language daily Arab News pulled a story about plans by CITC to link Twitter accounts of Saudi citizens to their national IDs. The newspaper has not explained why they pulled the front page story which said the plan was inspired by CITC’s successful implementation of a government decision to add user’s ID numbers while topping up mobile credit.
The government decision to link mobile prepaid cards to national IDs was justified as a security measure taken to prevent criminal uses of mobile phones. Linking mobile numbers to IDs means it is now harder to obtain numbers for temporary use, aka “burners,” which makes surveillance easier for authorities. The same security concerns seem to be behind the latest move to ban encrypted communications apps, unless their developers allows the government to monitor them.
However, an industry source told AFP today that telecom operators in the country are behind the move, accusing STC, Mobily and Zain of asking CITC to impose censorship because of the “damage” caused by free applications.
That unnamed industry source quoted by AFP could be correct, but this could also be a case where the interests of the government and mobile operators met at the expense of users. The government needs to monitor these apps for security reasons, and mobile operators don’t mind if people stop using these apps because they dent at their revenues as people would use them to communicate for free instead of paying the operators for calls and messaging services.
In 2010 Saudi Arabia threatened to ban BlackBerry instant messaging and demanded that the company install local servers to censor the service. Instant messaging services on BlackBerry continued to work, but it is unclear how far the Canadian smartphone manufacturer RIM, makers of Blackberry, went to comply.