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Saudi Arabia may block Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, others

By Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
updated 7:13 AM EDT, Mon April 1, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Saudi communications regulation agency threatens to block apps like Skype, WhatsApp
  • Agency says the apps must comply with rules, but doesn't say what rules they're breaking
  • Reports last week said telecoms were asked to let government monitor communications
  • A Saudi blogger says the move may be because the apps are used to organize protests

(CNN) -- Saudi Arabia may block access to popular Internet messaging applications like Skype, Viber and WhatsApp if telecommunication providers there don't comply with rules and regulatory conditions, according to the country's official news agency, SPA.

A statement from Saudi Arabia's Communications and Information Technology Commission released via SPA read, "The Commission emphasizes that it will take appropriate action regarding these applications and services in the event of failure to meet those conditions."

The statement did not address how the applications in question -- which allow Internet users to communicate with each other via text messages and voice calls -- were violating any rules, but it did highlight the need for service providers in the country to quickly "work with the developers of these applications to meet regulatory requirements."

Sunday's announcement came in response to local media reports last week claiming the CITC, the country's telecommunications regulator, had asked Saudi telecom companies to allow the government to monitor those applications and had given them until Saturday to respond.

Despite repeated attempts, CNN was unable to reach the CITC or any of Saudi Arabia's three mobile providers (Saudi Telecom Co., Zain Group and Mobily) for comment.

Sunday's move was met with derision by many Saudi social media users.

"The sense that I get is weariness," said Eman Al-Nafjan, one of Saudi Arabia's most prominent bloggers, while describing the online reaction she's encountered so far. "A shrugging shoulders -- as if it's typical."

"I'm not angry, just a little surprised that the Saudi government hasn't advanced beyond this type of tactic," added Al-Nafjan, who tweets as Saudiwoman. "I thought that they were better able to do this without resorting to have to threaten banning applications."

Still, Al-Nafjan told CNN she's not surprised by the timing of the announcement.

"I believe a big part of the reason why this is happening ... is because lots of demonstrations that were organized in Saudi Arabia were done through the use of WhatsApp," explained Al-Nafjan, citing recent small-scale demonstrations calling for the release of political prisoners.

In Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, protests are prohibited. Sixty percent of the country's population is under the age of 30 and Internet usage there is soaring.

"A lot of human rights activists that communicate in Saudi Arabia do so using WhatsApp," added Al-Nafjan. "And women's rights movement members are communicating using WhatsApp."

Al-Nafjan said Saudi activists felt safer communicating using applications like WhatsApp and Skype, as they are encrypted.

According to Christopher Davidson, author of the book "After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies," the Saudi government has grown increasingly concerned about the rising tide of dissent being expressed by Saudi online activists of late.

Davidson explained Saudi authorities would be looking for a way to monitor these applications because they are "prime examples of modernizing technologies which cannot be co-opted and controlled by national governments and their security apparatus."

"In the past we've had these voice-to-voice networks being blocked," said Davidson. "Sometimes for economic reasons, trying to protect state telecommunications monopolies. And that's certainly been an issue in the past -- the blocking of Skype in some of the Gulf monarchies. But now I think it's quite clear ... that it's the social and political use of this media that's most alarming."

For Al-Nafjan, the move is a "waste of time."

"People will know it's not safe and move to another application," said Al-Nafjan. "The same thing happened with BlackBerry."

Saudi authorities threatened to ban BlackBerry service in the kingdom in 2010, accusing the company of not complying with regulations. The CITC demanded the company install local servers so the service could be censored. An agreement was eventually reached but it is not known what steps were taken by the manufacturer of the Canadian smartphone in order to do so.

"People who are aware know that it's not that big of a deal even if these applications are blocked," explained Al-Nafjan. "The issue is if they ban the Internet or if they don't provide Internet sevices. As long as the Internet is available, there's no way that they can end freedom of speech -- it's gone beyond the point of no return."

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