Viber seeks ways to circumvent ban in Middle East

Its chief executive declined to elaborate on how Viber plans to evade the restrictions but says they are working to allow users to utilise its services, even if it is banned by the government.

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DUBAI // Viber Media, the Cyprus-based company which runs an internet-based communications application, is examining ways to circumvent a ban on its services in three Middle Eastern countries by making changes to its software.

Last week, the telecoms regulator in Saudi Arabia announced it will block Viber services in the kingdom. Access to Viber is also restricted by authorities in the UAE and Iran, as countries across the region try to protect the revenues of state-owned telcos and limit access to communication networks over which governments have little or no control.

Viber is working on updates to its service that will be rolled out in phases and allow users to make phone calls, send instant messages and share pictures and locations in any country in the world, even if the service is banned by the government, according to Viber chief executive Talmon Marco.

"Saudi Arabia is not a huge territory for us in terms of global usage," Mr Marco said in a telephone interview. "But it's the principle of this. The mission is to allow our users to connect."

He declined to elaborate on how Viber plans to evade the restrictions on its services. The company says it has more than 200 million users worldwide.

The Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission, or CITC, said Wednesday it had banned the use of Viber as the company had failed to meet regulatory requirements.

The CITC also threatened further action against other internet applications and web services if they didn't comply with the kingdom's rules.

The move by the telecoms regulator followed an announcement in April that it was seeking to regulate the use of messaging services such as Skype and Whatsapp within Saudi Arabia.

Two of Saudi Arabia's three telecoms operators - Saudi Telecom Co., Etihad Etisalat Co. and Mobile Telecommunications Co. Saudi Arabia - contacted Viber asking for information about how its network and application functioned, Mr Marco said, while declining to disclose which of the three operators had been in touch. He said that Viber had not been contacted by CITC.

Viber did not offer the telcos any information about how its network functions, and the operators did not ask for access to the content of the calls and messages being sent over Viber, Mr Marco said. Telecoms operators in Iran, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are blocking the connection between the Viber application on a mobile and the company's servers, or not allowing access to the Viber website on a desktop computer, he added.

Analysts say telecoms operators throughout the Arabian Gulf, like other parts of the world, have been grappling with the transfer of value to over-the-top internet companies, such Skype, Google Inc., Whatsapp and Facebook Inc. that offer voice and messaging services for free.

Until recently, the two operators in the UAE - Etisalat and Du - disrupted access to Skype and have so far blocked other applications such as the BlackBerry Messenger, or BBM, Voice and Video function.

Governments and telecoms operators have also been looking at ways of intercepting messages sent via Twitter, Whatsapp and other popular social media. Moxie Marlinspike, a well-known American software engineer and online-privacy advocate said Etihad Etisalat, or Mobily, had in May sought his help in intercepting secure communications. Mobily subsequently denied ever contacting Moxie Marlinspike.

Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia threatened a ban of BBM in 2010, over security concerns but came to an undisclosed agreement with BlackBerry, then known as Research In Motion.