In Saudi Arabia, it’s common for services like Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype and other messaging services to be blocked. The reason being is that Saudi Arabia’s government wants complete control over these services, and due to some apps like WhatsApp that use encrypted communication (as well as Facebook Messenger with the feature enabled), it can be difficult to do so. However now, it seems like Saudi Arabia is lifting the ban–but with one catch. It’s only unbanning the services that will satisfy regulatory requirements. Which basically means, that if they can’t monitor or censor a messaging app, it won’t work.
Messaging apps have the reputation of running rampant as communication networks for terrorists, hackers, activists, militants, and other criminals. Blocks like these trace as far back as 2013 in Saudi Arabia, as well as other Gulf Arab neighboring countries. When in reality, most of the users that use these apps use them out of convenience, good pricing, and ease of use.
However, this is bad news for Telecom companies that thrive off expensive phone pricing and other payment plans. The government pays these companies to work with them, and when other companies interfere, it makes things confusing–both for censorship, and other forms of covert deals.
This is why we aren’t surprised to see spokesmen like Adel Abu Hameed speak up about the new regulations to rationalize overly aggressive regulations. The regulations are a “good thing” because they are aimed to “protect users and their personal information and to block content that violates laws”.
Hameed fails to mention that for a large majority of users, these apps will be invalidated if users know they are being spied on and watched–perhaps turning back towards telecom companies and their services. This could be good news for companies like Telecom Co (STC), Etihad Etisalat (Mobily) and Zain Saud which earn millions from expats living in Saudi Arabia.
Hameed revealed his true hand by explaining how the apps will continue to work. “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.”
Right now, it’s not exactly clear why they are not lifting the ban on these apps, since that implies that they can monitor and censor content. Apps like WhatsApp use end-to-end encryption, which means even the company can’t read user messages. The question is how does Saudi Arabia’s government plan to monitor and censor content?
There is a slight chance that they are lifting this ban due to economic pressure in response to low oil prices, and using the declarations and regulations as a possible intimidation tactic, and they really can’t do anything about the apps. Especially with apps like TorGuard VPN being perfectly workable to encrypt all online communications.