Hoping for answers about blocks on internet calls, NGOs take telecom regulator to court
A lawsuit scheduled to be heard Wednesday in the Administrative Court is hoping to force some answers. The suit, which was already postponed earlier this month, was filed against the NTRA by the NGOs Support Center for Information Technology and the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression.
The lawsuit aims to force the NTRA to release a list of the services or websites that have been blocked in Egypt in recent month and to divulge the criteria upon which they were blocked, explains Aziza al-Taweel, the Support Center’s lawyer.
So far, Taweel says, the NTRA denies blocking WhatsApp and other voice calling services, but also maintains that such apps provide unlicensed international calls and are therefore illegal. “They are claiming that they need to be licensed first, while denying any blockage at the same time,” Taweel explains.
NTRA spokesperson Karim Soliman confirmed to Mada Masr that the regulatory body considers these services to be illegal, but added no further comments.
Did the NTRA block VoIP?
Questions about the NTRA’s stance on internet calls came to public attention in October 2015, when social media went into a rage after many users reported being unable to use internet calling apps like Viber, Skype, WhatsApp on 3G networks and ADSL. Disgruntled users’ reaction worsened after a few scattered statements by customer service operators of telecom companies on social media confirmed that the services had been blocked.
Shortly after, the services went back to working, with the usual poor quality on 3G networks. Both the telecom companies and the government regulator assured the public there was no blocking whatsoever.
Exactly what happened was, and remains, unclear. After nearly six months, there has been little clarification about the incident, highlighting the lack of transparency among the agencies responsible for enabling and regulating telecommunications in Egypt.
When Mada Masr investigated the issue in November 2015, Egypt’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology deflected any questions about the government’s plans for internet voice calls. Ministry spokesperson Mariam Fayez said such matters are in the hands of the National Telecom Regulatory Authority. Fayez declined to answer direct questions about whether the government is considering blocking VoIP services. The ministry is only concerned with strategic work, she said.
Meanwhile, the NTRA’s official media office refused repeated requests for information. Ali Anis, the NTRA’s Societal Interaction Director, told Mada Masr the authority has not blocked any services so far, and is not planning to do so.
All three of Egypt’s mobile phone companies — Mobinil, Etisalat and Vodafone — also insisted they took no action to block VoIP applications, apart from Skype, which has been blocked on 3G networks since 2010. Any problems with other applications were due to individual mobile phones or the applications themselves, company representatives said.
Telecom Egypt, the country’s landline monopoly and a major internet service provider, also insisted it is not blocking any applications, but refused to answer any further questions.
One could almost believe reports of service outages were a series of strange coincidences magnified by social media, or perhaps a technical glitch that affected users on different mobile networks, using different applications on different devices. And yet, a few accounts dispute the official narrative.
Before and during the outage in October, customer service representatives on Twitter clearly stated that the NTRA gave orders to block VoIP services.