Feature image via Flickr, October 2013: An iPhone with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications.
On Wednesday, the Syrian Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (TRA) announced that it was considering blocking voice calls on WhatsApp and other Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services to increase revenues in the telecommunications industry, according to an Al-Watan report. However, the decision will present a direct threat to Syrians’ rights to privacy, lead to an increase in self-censorship, decrease the safe flow of information, and place an unfair economic burden on them.
Officially, the Ministry of Telecommunications claimed that it might ban these services to shore up more revenue for the telecommunications industry, but this ban would inevitably have adverse effects. According to Al-Watan, the government-owned Syrian Telecommunications Company is projected to earn a profit of roughly $100 million (between 4 and 5 billion Syrian pounds) per year, but Ibaa Ouichek, the General Director of the Syrian Telecommunication Regulatory Authority, complained that VoIP “lowers the return on investment for [telecommunications] companies and reduces their incentive to make new investments to improve the network and offer better services for a lower price.”
Currently, SyriaTel, the mobile telecommunication company owned by Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, and MTN Syria, a subsidiary of the South Africa-based MTN Group Limited, maintain a duopoly on the mobile telecommunication market, with SyriaTel controlling the lion’s share.If adopted, this policy would infringe upon Syrians’ right to privacy and increase self-censorship. While WhatsApp and other VoIP services provide end-to-end encryption, voice calls over the government-controlled telecommunication network do not offer this same protection.
The Syrian government could easily listen in on conversations and extract metadata. The government has regularly purchased and used various surveillance tools to spy on people and forcing the population to abandon VoIP calls would present a direct threat to the right to privacy. Moreover, these decisions create a pathway for expensive and dangerous new alternatives.
In the United Arab Emirates, which has banned VoIP services because it alleges that they are not secure and are susceptible to hacking and phishing, has allowed the two mobile companies, Etisalat and Du, to roll out their own VoIP services. Not only do these services cost money, but the government of the UAE also has access to the metadata and call information, which facilitates surveillance. In an effort to increase profits, the telecommunications companies in Syria could roll out similar services. The new services might give citizens the illusion that their communications are protected, when in reality they would be just as vulnerable as regular calls.
At the base level, the decision would place an unfair economic burden on Syrians who already pay for these services. On social media, some Syrians voiced their anger about the additional costs they would incur as a result of this policy. The Syrian war has forced 5.6 million Syrians to flee the country, which means this decision would place further stress on their friends and family, leaving them no option but to make expensive international calls. The blocking of VoIP in the UAE has also had unfair ramifications by making it more difficult for deaf people to connect with their loved ones, as many rely on video calling features on VoIP services. Banning VoIP in Syria will likely have a similar effect.
If the TRA elects to follow through with this decision, it would further restrict the right to privacy and free expression. Syrians would still be able to circumvent this ban by downloading a VPN, but most of them cost money and those that are free often track browsing and give third parties access to your data.
While Qatar and the UAE also currently block access to VoIP services, Syria’s justification of “increasing revenue” sets a dangerous precedent. Other countries in the region, like Lebanon and Morocco, briefly blocked access to VoIP in 2010 and 2016 but quickly ended these initiatives. The Syrian TRA should abandon this proposal and continue to let VoIP services remain free and accessible to all.