The Risk of Blocking VoIP
The restrictions that Omani ISPs impose on accessing VoIP services, such as WhatsApp calls and Skype, push users in Oman to seek unsafe tools to bypass the censorship that blocks these apps. Some of these circumvention tools might expose the personal data of Omani users to online criminals, hackers, and identity thieves.
Omani ISPs are required by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) to block VoIP services such as WhatsApp calls, Skype, Facetime, and Google Hangouts. The official reason for imposing this censorship is that the law in Oman requires VoIP providers to register with the authorities here before they can operate. The TRA claims that this is necessary to protect consumers, ensure that VoIP providers pay taxes, and contribute to the creation of jobs in Oman.
Of course, these excuses cannot be taken seriously because the same arguments apply to any communication platform. For example, email and online chat services, as well as other online retailers such as Amazon and Apple. However, only VoIP services are blocked, but not other communications services or online retailers.
Unlike Gmail and Amazon, VoIP services can be in direct competition with traditional telecommunication companies that profit from expensive international phone calls and who would naturally prefer that local users in Oman do not have alternatives to using these expensive services. It is likely that this economic aspect of the censorship is the real reason why VoIP services are blocked.
Even though VoIP services have been blocked in Oman for as long we can remember, there have always been mechanisms for bypassing this censorship. These mechanisms in themselves are also usually illegal.
For example, the most common way of using WhatsApp calls in Oman is by using a VPN to bypass the entire censorship imposed by Omantel. VPN services are technically illegal because they are a form of encryption that requires approval from the authorities before they can be used. ISPs in Oman try to block as many VPN services as they can, but many still remain accessible.
The problem with using VPN is that average Omani users do not understand the risks associated with using free VPNs. These tools might require installing special software on the phone or the computer that can have access to the file system and other sensitive information stored on the device. Furthermore, while VPN services hide the traffic of the user from the local ISP, they expose the traffic to the VPN service provider itself.
There are many commercial VPN services that are designed specifically to improve user safety and security when browsing the Internet. However, free VPN services are risky to use because the motives and business models of the service provider are not always clear.
More users in Oman are now using risky free VPN services because they need to use VoIP services that are blocked by local ISPs. Instead of ‘protecting’ Omani consumers, the act of blocking VoIP in Oman is now putting Omani consumers at a higher level of danger because they are pushed to use unsafe tools to connect with their family and friends abroad. Blocking VoIP services in Oman has never been justified, and the authorities must reconsider their position in order to restore this core functionality of the Internet to users in Oman.