TRA Says No Skype For You

The Telecommunication Regulation Authority has made it very clear in a recent press release that it has no intention of allowing the providers of unlicensed voice over internet protocol services (VoIP) to operate in the Sultanate – in other words, the TRA is saying that you should not expect Skype to be unblocked anytime soon.

The TRA does not technically ban VoIP services, instead, it requires that all providers of VoIP services apply for a license before they are allowed to provide such a service in the country. For example, Nawras is properly licensed to provide VoIP services in Oman, and it does offer VoIP through a dial-in number to have reduced rates to make calls to the Indian subcontinent. These rates are reduced, but they are not cheap, and they are obviously not available for other countries around the world.

It is great that the TRA thinks that consumers would be more protected against fraud and other wrongdoings that may be done by the provider, and there is no doubt that the economy could benefit from the taxation of the profits of those who register to provide VoIP services in Oman, but the fact is that Oman is such a small market and it is very unlikely for the big players to find it worthwhile their time and effort to come all the way here just to register to satisfy the legal requirements of the TRA.

The loss of the opportunity to make profit out of the Omani market is negligible to international businesses; the real losers here are us the Omani consumers. We have to pay extortionate fees to stay in touch with our family and friends outside the country, even those in places as close as the UAE and Qatar. Every day new technologies come out that make use of VoIP in one way or another and we never get the opportunity to make full use these technologies like the rest of the world because of the TRA’s policy to block all VoIP applications. Just think of the iPhone’s FaceTime and the hundreds of other applications on new smartphones for voice and video chat. While we do have an extortionate alternative to Skype (just use your regular phone to make an international phone call), the same cannot be said for all these new and crippled technologies which we are not allowed to use. Oman Mobile and Nawras are not capable of providing us with an alternative to FaceTime even if we pay them for it.

It is widely believed that the real reason why Skype is blocked is because the TRA wishes to protect the interests of local companies and help them make money off international phone calls, this will not be hard to believe if you think of the incentive the TRA would have to cut off this revenue stream from Omantel, a company in which the government still holds a very significant share. This desire to protect the business of making phone calls is very short-sighted. It is true that the widespread of VoIP could lead to a reduction of the use of regular voice services, but it will surely help promote the use of data services which are needed to use VoIP and any other technology used to communicate over the internet.

The TRA has to reconsider the way VoIP is regulated, Oman cannot seriously consider transforming itself into a knowledge-based economy when the basic means of communicating this knowledge are blocked and crippled for the sake of providing local businesses with an opportunity to make money off old and inefficient services.


Reform and Freedom of Expression

The greatest achievement from the protests taking place all around the country, in my opinion, is the fact that people now feel that they can freely express themselves and say what is on their mind without fear of prosecution. The Basic Statute of the State has stipulated freedom of expression as a guaranteed right, yet the majority would not dare to practice that right due to their lack of awareness of the extent to which they can do so and cultural and societal barriers against publicly criticising other people and government officials. That is no longer the case as the current situations has proved that the government is willing to tolerate a great level of freedom of expression, especially as we now see people at the “Speaker’s Corner” of the Shura Council, the reports on TV and newspapers, and the hundreds of videos on YouTube showing Omani people criticising publicly government officials and telling corruption stories of former Ministers.

At the same time as this great step for freedom of expression in Oman, surprisingly, and for the first time, an Arabic Omani blog was blocked from being access in Oman presumably because of some leaked documents that were published on that blog. The blog of Ammar Al Maamari has always been one of the most controversial Omani blogs, as he has again and again published confidential documents suggesting the corruption of certain government officials. This time Ammar got his hands on a sound recording of the former Minister of Interior threatening in to use brutal force to remove the protestors from Sohar Roundabout; a number of very old documents showing that a formal order was made by the government to tap the phone calls of a Omani political activist, and some medical records of the victims of the incident of police clash at Sohar Roundabout.

The sound recording of the former Minister of Interior was not really confidential and all those invited to that meeting were supposed to inform the public that force will be used if the protestors do not leave the roundabout – that was the whole point of the meeting. The Minister of Interior was also removed from his position and a now Minister has been appointed, so there really isn’t anything to worry about relating to this issue. The second set of documents regarding the order to tap phone calls of the activist is a really old matter and it is not relevant to anything happening right now. What I am more concerned about is the last set of documents relating to the medical records of those injured at the roundabout. In reality, these documents did not contribute to the uncovering of any major government secret – the government made a statement that one person was killed and the leaked medical records say that.

I do not support the illegal disclosure of confidential documents, especially those that relate to private confidential matters of individuals, especially as this leak seems to be made for the sake of getting some attention and causing more chaos, yet I still believe that it is wrong to block someone’s website. In this situation it might have been difficult for the authorities to take legal action against the blogger because he is not based in Oman, but that does not really make blocking the website justified because even if you block it the content will just be republished elsewhere – we still read what he posted even after the blog was blocked. Censorship should never be an option because it just does not work.

I do not know if the decision to block this website was made by a low-level officer or someone really senior, but as the Cabinet of Ministers has gone through a major restructure last week, I do hope that the government reconsiders its position in relation to internet censorship so that it goes in line with the new expectation in society to be able to freely express yourselves and share your point of view with everyone else.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.