Bahrain is the latest Arab nation to consider blocking Skype and other communications services like Viber and Whatsapp. Several other countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Oman, have already blocked some of these applications, citing security concerns and a loss of telecom revenue as their primary reasons for taking action. The blocking of Skype in Bahrain could sometime during the latter half of 2013.
Countries in the region are disturbed by the fact that they cannot monitor Skype and other services. In an area which has been a hotbed of Islamic radicals, the need to shore up security has become a priority. In addition, the presence of millions of foreign workers in the region means that national telecom companies are losing money whenever expatriates use Skype or Viber to make calls or send messages to loved ones in their home country.
Many people use VoIP in Bahrain
Skype, Viber, and other similar apps function via something known as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). These applications use the delivery system of the Internet to make calls and send text messages in much the same way that they are sent on a smartphone. It has been estimated that millions of people in the region use the services, and one study commissioned by the Bahrain government revealed that 100,000 people had used VoIP during a period of four days to make calls, send photos, and otherwise interact with people outside of the region.
If Skype is blocked in Bahrain many people will be affected. One solution that people are using in preparation for a state-imposed block is a VPN account. Using a VPN lets users access Skype and other blocked services by encrypting the connection. When the connection is encrypted the filters used by Internet Service providers to block sites will not be able to block the request to open a page etc since it will not be able to identify what a user is accessing or trying to access.
Blocking encrypted communication in Bahrain
Another concern is that Bahrain will eventually seek to block Skype and Viber because of the secure aspects of these services. VoIP services typically use a fairly high level of encryption to protect users from having their data stolen. This encryption can make it difficult for government officials to observe communications.
Saudi Arabia initially sought to force VoIP services to drop the encryption of data in order to spy on the communications of users. Such a concession is unlikely to be granted by Skype on account of the furor that would be generated among its customer base. The only solution left for countries like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is to ban the services outright.
Moral values and traditions in Bahrain
The government of Bahrain has stated that the use of Skype threatens the “moral values and traditions” of the Islamic region. Obviously, some users engage in communications which would be accepted in the West but frowned upon in Bahrain. Exchanging this kind of communication in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia can be construed as a violation of law. While there are no specific regulations which govern what constitutes a moral breach online, a lack of specifics has never deterred these countries from taking harsh legal action when behavior is deemed immoral.
Bahrain and other Islamic provinces like Saudi Arabia do not regard the law and Islam to be different concepts. They are considered to be joined at the hip, and Islamic Law is what tends to govern the court system.
How to use Skype in Bahrain
If a ban of Skype, Viber, and Whatsapp does move forward in Bahrain, there is still a way that nationals and expatriates can access the site. The method for doing this involves what is known as a VPN, or Virtual Private Network.
Almost all Internet-ready devices offered today come with a built-in VPN client. Windows, MAC, the iOS, and Android platforms all include a VPN client. In order to make it work, a user needs to establish a VPN account and then configure the VPN client with the network credentials. This is a relatively simple process which can be done in a matter of minutes.
Once the VPN is set up, a user in Bahrain can appear to be accessing the Internet from the US or another area where Skype is not blocked. Skype will register the IP address presented by the VPN and conclude that the user is in that geographical location. At the same time, since traffic is encrypted over the VPN, filters used by Bahrain would not know you are bypassing the restrictions.
In addition to being able to access Skype in Bahrain, VPN’s use a very complex level of encryption. This encryption protects sensitive data from prying eyes. In this way, users do not have to worry about whether or not they are violating the moral standards of Bahrain by sending photos, messages, or other communications that the region finds offensive.