Looking back at Skype’s blocking/unblocking: a Jordanian communication problem?

Note: This is an article I’ve written for the Jordan Times after the Skype blocking crisis. It was published last week due to Eid holiday. The article might be a bit old by now, but the questions of why Skype was blocked still stands.

The story of the temporary blocking of Skype in Jordan only hit the pages of mainstream newspapers after the service was unblocked. Actually, that previous sentence is not accurate. For most, (if not all) users of Skype in Jordan, the service itself was never really unblocked. I, for one, kept talking to my friends on Skype throughout the ‘ban’ period.

The only real effect of the ban/blocking was the Skype.com website was not longer accessible.

Skype is the world’s most successful internet telephony application. It has been adopted by millions of people worldwide. It allows extremely clear voice (and now also video) communication from PC to PC for free. It allows teleconferences that could involve up to ten participants. It allows users to call normal telephones at deeply discounted rates. It also allows file exchanges and text chatting. No wonder it’s popular (eBay acquired Skype for nearly US$ 4 billion earlier this week).

Over the past year, Skype has become a part of many Jordanian’s business and domestic lifestyles. At my company, we use Skype for long online meetings with our clients in the US and Europe. We could never afford to pay two and a half hour phone calls to San Francisco, for example. Skype is enabling everyone, from moms to CEOs to be more connected.

Once people have such a service at their fingertips, it’s very hard to take it away from them. And that’s exactly was seemed to be happing a few weeks ago. What unfolded is a classic story of government to business and business to consumer lack of communication. And although the Skype.com domain is accessible again, no one seems to know exactly what happened.

“Theyre blocking Skype!”
That’s how the rumour started spreading over email earlier this month. At the core of the rumour was that the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (TRC), decided to block Skype because the company did not have a licence to operate as a voice provider in Jordan.

I am stressing that this was a rumour. Nothing on the TRC’s website indicated that such a move was made. An email to the contact email address of the TRC returned no answer.

A number of Jordanian bloggers started complaining about the measure. Accusations were levelled at the TRC that the move was made to protect the long distance business of Jordan Telecom.

A copy of what was claimed to be a TRC fax addressed to one of Jordan’s ISP ordering them to block the Skype service and web site, was displayed on a number of blogs. More criticism of the TRC was expressed. And there still was no word from the Regulator. There also was no word from the ISPs, who simply did not bother to inform their customers of the blockage (as mentioned above the blockage never really happened).

“We can’t inform everyone,” said the customer service representative of one of the ISPs when he was asked why customers where not alerted.

Security concerns
Then suddenly the Skype site was unblocked Thursday, October 12. A story in the Jordan Times on Friday October 13, had the TRC make the claim that security concerns where behind what was now being termed a “temporary block”.

The TRC said that these security issues where addressed, Skype is back.

Well, Skype was never really “gone” throughout the blocking period! It was only the site that was gone. It is also unclear what was meant by “security concerns”, opening the door for speculation and outright dismissal of such claims from observers and bloggers. Similar services to Skype and their websites where still available throughout the whole period of “blocking”.

Technical, not security matters?
On Tuesday, Addustour daily ran a story quoting the head of the TRC Ahmad Hiasat who said that there was no intention by the TRC to block Skype. The blockage, according to Hiasat was ordered to “accommodate some technical studies”. Again, these technical issues where not explained.

Whatever the intention of the TRC was and whatever security or technical concerns where, citizens and businesses would have been better served by more transparency and more a more proactive communication approach both by the TRC and the Jordan’s ISPs.

People are relying on the internet more and more. The net is no longer a luxury, but a crucial part of the life many Jordanians, who want to access information and communication services.

Jordan’s liberal internet policies and its early telecom deregulation process have been showcases for Jordan’s pro-tech approach. Blocking Skype would have put a big dent in Jordan technology friendly image.

This whole episode shows the desperate need for more communication between the regulator, ISPs, businesses and citizens. Consumers had the right to know what was being done to one of the services they use. Instead, the issue became a mini-contoversy and today we still don’t understand what really happened

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