Investigating the ban on Talky in the UAE
I began my adventure working at &yet in January of 2018, and one of my first experiences was when suddenly, traffic on Talky plummeted. This was particularly jarring to me since one of the reasons I was hired was to be Talky’s product manager. How could traffic drop so quickly, and why didn’t it recover?
Initially, this felt like a fluke. Perhaps there was an issue with our usage monitoring, or maybe not all of our traffic was being reported? Because we don't gather data from our users, we didn't have regional information at our fingertips. Luckily, our support emails began coming in and we were able to diagnose the issue. All of the missing traffic had been coming from one particular country, The United Arab Emirates (UAE), and their government had banned our app.
Why was the UAE using Talky in the first place? They are a small country with a population of only 9.5 million, and their Talky usage was significantly greater than other, much larger countries. The answer is a combination of reasons. The newness of the UAE as a country and need for labor in their domestic oil industry gives them a population that is mostly comprised of expats. This means international communication is a priority for many, and the local telecom regulations do not provide enough options for these residents.
The United Arab Emirates was formed in 1971 as a federation of seven emirates, or political territories. They are a largely Muslim country that functions with a blend of Western and Sharīʿah laws, principles, and culture. The UAE’s economy is primarily based in energy (oil) with economic diversification efforts in manufacturing and construction. Almost 12 percent of the population living in the UAE is Emirati (citizens of the UAE), while 88.5% (8.5 million people) are expatriates. This statistic is staggering when you consider that the entire United States, with a total population of around 320 million, only has about 4 million expats.
So, there are huge swaths of workers with family in other countries living in the UAE. Why did they all decide to start using Talky? Part of the reason lies with the operating telecom companies. Until 2007, Etisalat was the only provider in the country, with the company du entering the marketplace that year. Only the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) has the ability to license to new competitors, and if you look at the licenses granted you can see they do not do this very often. All public telecom services are provided through these two companies, and their prices reflect the privilege of being licensed. These services can cost up to seven times more in the UAE than in neighboring countries, and international calling is an add-on expense.
Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) apps seem like a perfect solution for those looking to communicate internationally, but many Middle Eastern governments have a negative view of these apps. One of the reasons stated for banning chat apps in the UAE is security. Many of these apps (including Talky) provide end-to-end encryption and are difficult for the government to monitor. After the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016 was orchestrated over WhatsApp, Middle Eastern governments have been swift to put the hammer down on secure communication platforms. Beginning in 2016, a wave of bans swept across the Middle East for apps like Skype, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and others. Talky was spared in this initial prohibition, but eventually faced the same fate.
With a short-term economic view, it makes sense for the TRA to keep telecommunications services a majority government-owned duopoly. Limiting competition in this industry may give the government immediate cash-flow, but there are far-reaching consequences. By suppressing competition the UAE indirectly limits innovation in telecom. If new licenses are not given by the TRA, citizens have no incentive to invest their time or money in this industry. Developers and smaller telecom businesses cannot flourish when privacy and independence are not protected. This may not impact the country’s bottom line today, but will limit the potential for future growth in this sector.
Luckily, the minds of those who create this kind of technology usually move faster than those who regulate it. Virtual private networks, or VPNs, have been widely available for years, and are currently used in the UAE and similar countries to sidestep these bans. In fact, du and Etisalat have their own VPN packages available for subscribers. Additionally, Microsoft and Apple have been working with the government of the UAE to lift its ban on Skype and FaceTime. We hope to bring Talky back to the UAE one day. Until then, we will continue to focus on maintaining the easiest to use and most stable video chat platform for the rest of the world. You can check out Talky and chat with your friends, family, and coworkers for free.
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