Saudi Arabia has suspended popular internet messenger application Viber for failing to comply with unspecified regulations. The Communications and Information Technology Commission also warned that “appropriate action will be taken against other applications or services that do not comply with regulations.”
Whether this is in the name of censorship, business interests, or both, is unclear. Viber received a warning from the Saudi telecommunications regulator in March, along with Skype and WhatsApp. The CITC wanted these communication platforms, which allow users to make free calls, send instant messages and share files over the internet, to provide a local server to monitor user activity. It gave them a week to comply. Having let two months elapse, blocking Viber, the smallest of the three services, may be its way of sending a warning shot to the other two.
While stricter controls could be the authoritarian regime’s attempt to monitor for signs of social unrest in the wake of the Arab Spring protests of 2011, there’s also a business angle at play. These free applications deprive licensed telecom operators of revenue from international calls and texts, which is considerable given that Saudi Arabia has a large expatriate population. Local media reports have cited industry sources who accuse telecom operators like Saudi Telecommunications, Mobily and Zain of asking the CITC to impose censorship.
In the neighboring United Arab Emirates, many features of Skype and Viber are already blocked, but WhatsApp isn’t. That might be a hint that, at least in the UAE, business interests are at play: Skype and Viber, unlike WhatsApp, allow users to make voice calls for free, and international calls are where the telecom operators are likely losing most of their revenue. But in 2010 both Saudi Arabia and the UAE threatened to ban BlackBerry instant messaging and demanded that the company install local servers to censor the service. BlackBerry caved, but the details of the compromise weren’t made public.