Already deprived of some of the major connectivity apps such as WhatsApp’s calling service and Viber, Saudi citizens were astonished to find that their Facebook Messenger and IMO had also been blocked.
An official explanation behind the move was not provided but local news reports suggest it is a marketing strategy by Saudi telecom operators in a bid to stop people from using smartphone apps, which are far cheaper and mostly free alternatives to calling.
Instead, the country’s Communications and Information Technology Commission simply issued a warning to other messaging services failure to comply with unspecified “regulations.”
“Appropriate action will be taken against applications or services that do not comply with the regulations,” a spokesman stated.
In 2010, the country banned Blackberry phones when the Saudi government argued it was getting rather difficult for them to keep a tab on terrorist activities. The BlackBerry messages were encrypted and couldn’t be tracked easily.
Three years later, the Gulf kingdom suspended popular messenger app Viber for breaking local laws. Even at the time, the authorities did not explain exactly which regulatory requirement the company didn’t fulfill.
Although, in almost all the cases, failure to comply with regulations has been cited as the only reason for suspending social media applications, many believe these bans are just tools for the Saudi government to exert more control over cyberspace.
It is a well-documented fact how the powers that be in the ultra-conservative Islamic nation closely monitor and effectively hinder their population’s right to free speech. As internet usage is becoming more common than before, it is becoming difficult for Saudi authorities to keep a check on, and subsequently censor, private messaging and calls.
In any case, be it regulation or censorship, the biggest losers of these free smartphone apps remain their frequent users, both inside and outside of the country. Some of them took to Twitter — which fortunately has not been banned yet in Saudi Arabia — to vent their frustration:
Me: *doesn't want to speak with someone on the phone*— Amber Arif (@AmberArif) May 10, 2016
Me: They banned facebook messenger calling in Saudi Arabia sorry
Imo and Facebook messenger calling has been banned in Saudi Arabia — feeling confused at King Abdulaziz Center... https://t.co/q0AadEEvi7— Peer @ Abbaskhan (@friendabbas74) May 9, 2016
For 2days In Saudi IMO app off by govt.. Why this happen?don't know— Moni Islam Nelson (@IslMoni) May 13, 2016
Saudi Arabia has blocked calling anf video calling apps like imo and facebook messenger. Its a sad day for us ??— Chatty Cora Mancio (@mrsborja_chatty) May 10, 2016