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COVID Pandemic: Human Rights Groups Urge Unblocking Voice Over Platforms in Gulf

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Amid COVID-19 outbreak, Human Rights Watch joined 28 other organizations in issuing the statement urging Gulf countries to unblock Voice Over IP platforms for voice and video internet calls. Many organizations including the World Health Organization, as well as governments, are currently using WhatsApp chatbots and other platforms to disseminate information. Denying the Gulf population access to these platforms puts people at serious risk. 

Gulf countries have for a long time banned voice and video internet call apps and platforms. Such a sweeping ban has caused serious problems for the people living in those countries, especially the migrant workers and foreign residents who need to connect and communicate with their families back home.

In response to the spread of COVID-19, the UAE and Oman have relaxed some restrictions on some of these VoIP apps and platforms. The UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, in co-operation with Etisalat and Du, has unblocked, on an “exceptional” and temporary basis, apps that allow for distance learning.The applications are:

  1. Google Hangouts Meet
  2. Cisco Webex
  3. Avaya Spaces
  4. BlueJeans
  5. Slack

Applications that continue to remain available are:

  1. Microsoft Teams
  2. Skype for Business
  3. Zoom
  4. Blackboard

The Oman government has followed suite while Microsoft Teams and Zoom are also available in Qatar. However, popular VoIP apps such as WhatsApp, Skype, and FaceTime remain blocked despite persistent pleas from citizens and residents living in the three countries.

The Gulf governments should not take any chances when it comes to containing this pandemic and protecting all who live within their borders. In light of the COVID-19 global pandemic outbreak, Gulf governments should listen to the urge by organizations and resident people and permanently lift the ban on all Voice Over IP (VoIP) platforms.

Following are some of the signatories to the HRW  Statement endorsing unblocking of IP platforms: The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), The Omani Centre for Human Rights (OCHR-Oman), Access Now, L’Association Francophone pour les Droits de l’Homme, Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Center for Migrant Advocacy, Democratic Transition & Human Rights Support Center (DAAM), Digital Rights Foundation, Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, and other rights groups.

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