There is no denying that Saudis are tech savvy. About 50% of the population are under the age of 25. Computers and smart phones are relatively affordable. Add to that the confining and conformist society that makes up Saudi and you get a country where on average, every person has 1.8 mobile phones. One of the highest averages in the world. Everyone and their grandmother is online whether they use their real names or not.
Then you have the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) trying to regulate, monitor and/or monopolize Saudis online. First it was with the Blackberry Messenger service a couple of years ago. CITC threatened Blackberry that it would block their services in the country and so Blackberry complied and granted CITC access to its instant messaging service.
Now Viber, Whatsapp and Skype are the focus of the CITC. Viber was blocked a few days ago and there are sporadic reports from some that their Viber account wasn’t blocked. I tried it today and couldn’t even download the application ont my iphone. Whatsapp has reportedly rejected CITC requirements and will be blocked in the upcoming weeks. No news yet if Skype had been contacted directly or how it responded.
Why is the CITC doing this? It’s probably a combination of factors. First to monitor (more bluntly spy) on Saudi citizens. This is supported by reports that Blackberry had to place some of its communication servers in Saudi in order to avoid suspension of its services. But the monitoring argument contradicts that Viber CEO Talmon Marco states that his company was not contacted by CITC to request access before blocking it. So another additional, not necessarily alternative, reason is commercial interests. These applications are free alternatives to services provided by telecom companies in Saudi. Since government accountability is more of a foreign concept than an applicable one, it’ll be hard to get CITC to be more forthcoming on its reasons. I was literally laughed at when I suggested that citizens have a right to directly question CITC on its reasons.
In the long term it doesn’t really matter how many applications are blocked or what reason they’re blocked for. Early on, Saudi persistence and desperation has broken down all blocks. When some websites were blocked, they found a loophole through the cache and translated versions on Google search. When those were blocked, they found a way through the secure http. Right now there are Saudi produced Youtube videos on how to circumvent the Viber block and others on how to download alternatives to Whatsapp. The Japanese Line application is a free alternative to Whatsapp and so far has not been threatened with suspension. As long as there are internet services available in Saudi, these blocks will only have an effect on the short term and to many Saudis are just an inconvenience.