Saudi Arabia is looking at a potential block of services including WhatsApp, Skype and Viber that allow VOiP, messaging and real-time chat according to the country’s official press agency (via CNET). The potential service blockage is a response to these apps not adhering to regulatory requirements put in place by the Saudi Arabian government, and seems to mirror the trouble BlackBerry had with its own BBM offering back in 2010.
While the Saudi authorities don’t come right out and say it, the reason behind this new ban, as with the previous BlackBerry ban, is that Skype, Viber and WhatsApp don’t allow their customers’ exchanges to be monitored by government agencies. CNN reports that political protests in Saudi Arabia have been partially organized via WhatsApp. Those kinds of demonstrations are completely illegal in the country, which may explain why WhatsApp and similar tools have now drawn the ire of regulatory enforcers.
When the same issue arose with BlackBerry, it resulted in a temporarily suspension of BBM services, before a deal between RIM and the Saudi government allowed things to go back online. The exact details of the agreement weren’t made public, but the Saudi government is looking for a similar level of cooperation with app-makers behind the services mentioned above in this new case.
Saudi Arabian blogger Eman Al-Nafjan told CNN that the move is not surprising, but that it will also ultimately be ineffective in achieving the Saudi government’s goals, even if these specific app-makers comply. As with BlackBerry before it, Al-Nafjan says that people who want to keep their communications private will simply recognize that WhatsApp, Skype and Viber are no long completely secure communication platforms, if they make changes to adhere to the Saudi Arabian regulations, and move on to other tools. So long as the Internet itself remains available and open, users with a political agenda will find a way to communicated securely.
Just as it was with BlackBerry, the response from these services to the proposed ban will be watched closely by users. Moves made by companies in response to government requests like this one can be seen as a barometer of overall trustworthiness for Internet software and service, but as Al-Nafjan points out, whether or not specific brands comply with these kinds of requests, there’s always another option waiting to take their place.