Well, it seems the rumors are true. The Lebanese Parliament will be calling a special session tomorrow to discuss banning Skype. Apparently, several other VoIP (voice-over-IP) services have already been blocked, such as Magic Jack, and if all goes according to plan, Skype and Gchat could be next. Imad Atalla breaks it down in the Daily Star:
No one has noticed, but the Lebanese government is writing yet another chapter in the endless mockery of our rights as private citizens and social entrepreneurial agents of progress and change. The state is extending censorship over the remainder of our liberties into the last frontier of freedom – the internet and its supposed neutrality.
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is a cost effective and sometimes free way of long-distance voice calling and video conferencing. It is also illegal in Lebanon, according to the telecoms law of 2002. Unlike Instant Messaging, VoIP allows users to speak from phone to phone via the internet. While extremely economical for average consumers and businesses, it greatly reduces revenues to the (monopolistic) landline network and, in some cases, wireless telephone companies – read Ogero, MTC, Alfa, and the Finance Ministry as the direct beneficiaries of long-distance communication revenues.
Last week the Telecommunications Ministry began implementing the short-sighted telecoms law to the letter: It activated new hardware and software equipment to enforce the ban on VoIP communications. The new equipment, which was tested in recent months, now effectively blocks internet telephony for good. (Keep reading)
Lebanon’s telecommunications sector is a national embarrassment. With the least competitive cellular market in the Middle East, the 172nd slowest internet speed in the world, and some of the most expensive calling charges anywhere, the telecommunications industry has long been used shamelessly as a coffer-stuffer for the Lebanese government.
If I’m not wrong, telecommunications alone provides the single largest revenue stream for the government. Is it any wonder, therefore, that efforts are now being made to curtail the inroads of VoIP alternatives to exorbitant calling rates?
I have to wonder, though: what’s the angle? Even by the standards of this lousy government, doing away with services like Skype will be a deeply unpopular move. As Atalla attests in his piece for the Daily Star, the proposed ban has already enraged business people and entrepreneurs who are trying to compete in an increasingly global market. Students and other young professionals (who generally provide the energy and muscle for any political movement in Lebanon) are up in arms. And, most importantly, this has the potential to further alienate the most important constituency of all: Lebanese expatriates living abroad.
For all of those hard-working folks slaving away in hellish places like Dubai, the Congo, and Quebec, Skype is a lifeline. Rather than sinking all of your savings into expensive telephone calls to Mama, Baba, Teta, and Jido, the internet has made staying in touch with the motherland affordable. As a result, so the theory goes, more people are likely to send more money home. Now, thanks to the Telecommunications ministry, remittances are likely to take a hit.
But is it really the Telecommunications Ministry that is to blame? Could Charbel Nahhas (the man we thought would be Aoun’s shadow finance minister) seriously have screwed up this badly? The FPM forums are seething over this move, demanding an explanation, and even calling for Gebran Bassil to be re-instated as Telecoms chief.
The only thing I can think of as a possible explanation for this move is the notion that Nahhas is trying to circumvent the likely loss of telephone revenue once Lebanon receives fiber optic upgrades in the next couple of months. The upgrades will enhance internet speeds, making it easier for people to Skype their Teta to get her recipe for koosa mi7sheh… unless Skype is banned.
PS: I just received the draft law on information technology, which is supposedly responsible for this mess. (Warning: if you live in Lebanon, this file is 2MB, and so may take you three weeks to download.)
Update 2: Here’s a relevant comment by RedLeb:
Apparently, facts are irrelevant when whipping up a finger waving hysteria.
There is no connection between the draft law QN posted (and allegedly going to a vote today) and the VoIP ban.
As the Daily Star article points out, the VoIP ban was set by the 2002 telecom law. It also has much earlier antecedents in the fact that any unlicensed telephony operations are illegal in Lebanon. VoIP has in fact been illegal for some time now, and there are periodic clampdowns on the those that provide it locally.
That target is really unlicensed international phone call providers, not so much the home user. It’s dumb and idiotic, but telecom is the government’s cash cow, and until more enlightened financial policies are in place, we’re stuck with this ban.
The law linked to, and that is also generating hysterical reporting in the press, is concerned with electronic transactions and signatures. While everyone seems to believe it allows the government to spy on you, it actually allows the government to spy on regulated certificate authorities. And that’s a good thing.