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Saudi Arabia to censor Skype, WhatsApp calls after lifting ban

Saudi Arabia banned the use of voice calling apps in 2013 [AFP]

Date of publication: 21 September, 2017

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The Saudi government will monitor and censor calls made through online apps such as Skype and WhatsApp after lifting a ban on the services, a telecoms regulator spokesman said.
Saudi Arabia has lifted a ban on voice calling apps, including WhatsApp and Skype, in an attempt to boost economic growth.

The kingdom's ministry of communications on Wednesday described the decision as "an important step in the kingdom's internet regulation" that will "reduce operational costs and spur digital entrepreneurship".

But the calls will be monitored by authorities.

Adel Abu Hameed, spokesman for telecoms regulator CITC, told Arabiya TV on Wednesday: "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."

It was unclear how the authorities can monitor apps such as WhatsApp, which says its messages are supported by end-to-end encryption, meaning the company cannot read customers' messages even if approached by law enforcement agencies.

Voice calling apps were banned in Saudi Arabia in 2013, when the government, wary that such services could be used by activists and militants, said it was "to protect society from any negative aspects that could harm the public interest".

Despite now repealing the 2013 decision, the kingdom maintains close surveillence on communications that has intensified since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

Press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders described the kingdom in 2014 as a "prime centre of content blocking" and said the country's authorities "claim to have blocked some 400,000 sites".

Wednesday's announcement by Saudi authorities comes just days after picture sharing app Snapchat blocked Al Jazeera content in the conservative kingdom.

The Doha-based news network is currently banned in Saudi Arabia, which is locked in a diplomatic dispute with Qatar.

Riyadh accuses Doha of supporting international terrorism and previously demanded that Qatar shutter a number of Doha-based media outlets in order to resolve the crisis.

Qatar has vehemently rejected the accusations and demands.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia also arrested at least 20 public figures in a crackdown on dissent related to the Gulf diplomatic crisis.

Among those being detained is Salman al-Awdah, a Muslim cleric with a Twitter following of more than 14 million.

Just days before his arrest, the popular religious leader posted a tweet in which he welcomed reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

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