Saudi Arabia likely to block WhatsApp within weeks

Last week the Kingdom blocked Viber. WhatsApp is likely to be next; and Skype may follow. “We have been communicating with WhatsApp and other similar communication platforms to get them to cooperate and comply with the Saudi telecom providers, however nothing has come of this communication yet,” Abdullah Al-Darrab, governor of the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), told Arab News in a telephone interview on Friday.

The main issue seems to be that such channels bypass Saudi’s communications monitoring capabilities and consequently do not conform to local regulations. This is not the first time that Saudi has blocked message services – it temporarily blocked BlackBerry’s messenger services in 2010, saying at the time that Blackberry’s encryption meant that the country could not monitor the content. “They argue this hinders efforts to fight terrorism and criminal activity,” reported the BBC at the time.

The Kingdom’s regulators are demanding that the messenger providers establish local servers to allow monitoring. Viber declined, and was blocked last week. “Founder and CEO of Viber, Talmon Marco, has reportedly said that Viber is currently working on overcoming the block,” notes Arab News; but doesn’t indicate whether this implies complying with the regulations. Other companies appear to be unwilling to cooperate. “We gave them a week to comply and have been communicating with them since March to no avail,” Al-Darrab told Arab News. “Therefore, this has left us with no choice but to block these services, beginning with Viber.” 

Asked when WhatsApp would be blocked, he said “It is highly likely before Ramadan” (the Muslim holy month that will start early July). Skype will follow. “We will take punitive action against these applications and services if they do not comply with the regulations,” said Al-Darrab. The earlier Blackberry block was lifted when Research In Motion complied with those regulations. Skype would likely find little difficulty in establishing a local server since one of the first actions by Microsoft after acquiring Skype was to move the service to its own servers. One more in Saudi Arabia would go a long way to solving the problems.

Meanwhile, Saudi residents are concerned on the likely effect of blocking on commerce. “The CITC must realize that they can’t just cut Saudi residents off from the rest of the world by blocking new services,” Nourah Farida, a Saudi businesswoman, told Arab News. “This is because Viber, Skype and WhatsApp are used for personal and business communication... “How are we supposed to communicate globally, are we expected to go back to using text messages and e-mails?” she asked.

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