UAE telecoms regulator defends decision to block Snapchat calling

Snapchat uses voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technology to allow users to make calls over the web.

The Snapchat app has fallen foul of telecoms regulations in the UAE but it has many fans. Patrick T Fallon / Bloomberg
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ABU DHABI // Internet restrictions such as the new block on voice calls via the popular Snapchat app are an international embarrassment to the UAE, the Federal National Council’s youngest member said on Tuesday.

Saeed Al Remeithi, 32, said the UAE should have the same online rules as any developed country and all features should be open to everyone.

“Any person who uses any app or video pays Etisalat a lot of money, and if we calculate what is downloaded from the web, or any call, it is a lot,” he told the council.

“So the issue of limiting technologies is very important.”

The United Nations “considered the internet a human right, and it should be available for everyone on an international level”, he said. “As UAE representatives we are embarrassed in the international federation by this issue.”

The FNC session was questioning Hamad Al Mansouri, head of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.

Many online services offer voice calls over the internet, but in the UAE these functions are restricted to the two licensed telecoms operators, Etisalat and du.

“Users are limited in the UAE, and the public are calling for these services,” Mr Al Remeithi said.

Mr Al Mansouri, director general of the TRA, claimed that voice calls using Snapchat, the photo and messaging application which introduced the function in an upgrade last month, had been blocked because of concerns over state security and cyber-terrorism.

“The security factor is important in the country. If we neglect it, online calling will impose risks,” he said.

Mr Al Mansouri said that next year Etisalat would be launching 5G services that would include “voice and online calls generally”.

He insisted that the UAE was not alone in imposing such restrictions.

Morocco used to offer online calling but suspended the service, Mr Al Mansouri said, and France and the UK were also looking at blocking some features, although he provided no details.

FNC members also raised the issue of the cost of telecoms services, and complaints from Emiratis about high prices. The council made an official recommendation to the government to look into reducing prices.