UAE residents confused by removal of ToTok from Apple store

ToTok - unlike rivals such as Skype - was free and easy to access in the UAE

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UAE residents fear being cut off from their families over Christmas after a free video calling app disappeared.

The ToTok platform, an alternative to services such as Skype which is blocked in the Emirates, had spread rapidly in popularity over recent weeks as it offered a cost-free alternative to paid video calling services supplied by providers such as Etisalat and du.

However, the app mysteriously disappeared over the weekend from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store, without explanation.

While some users who had already downloaded ToTok said they were still able to use it as before, others reported patchy coverage and some were concerned that it could soon stop working altogether.

Some workers on low incomes struggle to afford video calling packages offered by mobile phone providers and said ToTok had offered a lifeline to their families thousands of kilometres away.

"My employer downloaded it for me on my phone and it let me see my family over the app," a Filipino housemaid, who said she had been using ToTok weekly for around three months to speak to and see her grown-up children and young grandchildren, told The National. "I feel sad if I cannot use it any more, it was the only way I could connect to my family. I was shocked when I read that it could be taken away."

Another upset resident wrote on Facebook: “Skype also is no allowed, so... how can we talk to our family?”

Confusion surrounds the legality of ToTok and whether it had been authorised by the UAE authorities.

Botim, a Singaporean video calls provider that is licensed by the UAE's telecoms regulator and has tie-ups with Etisalat and du, announced recently that it would begin providing its services under the ToTok brand. This led many to assume that the free service would be widely available and available for widespread use.

However, others feared its emergence was too good to be true, and blamed recent publicity in the UAE media for the disappearance of ToTok, which they said they had been quietly using for several months.

One recent article in a UAE newspaper reported that people were cancelling subscriptions to paid for services en masse due to the availability and reliability of ToTok.

Regulators have traditionally taken a hard line against apps offering similar free services, with WhatsApp and Facebook video calls also banned in the Emirates.

There is the option to pay for video calls from government-owned providers and their brands, but residents face data charges and having to pay extra for a special package to access the services.

There have been calls over recent years for the ban on WhatsApp and Skype calls in particular to be lifted, however, despite suggestions that rules could be relaxed, so far authorities have maintained their position.

The difficulty to monitor such services for security reasons and the country's "regulatory framework" - in which government-owned companies are licensed to operate mobile and broadband services - has been cited in the past.

The National contacted the UAE Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, Botim, Apple and Google on Sunday seeking clarification about the status of ToTok. All were yet to respond at the time of publishing.

*This story has been updated to reflect that Totok has now also been removed from the Google Play Store