Digital Oppression: Tech & Tradition in Saudi Arabia

Note: This article was written and intended for publication in March 2019. Though some features of the App in question have been modified since, it remains up on Google’s Play Store and retains features that allow men to track their wives and daughters.

The myriad political implications of social media are, by 2019, well established. The double-edged capacity for instantaneous communication both blesses protests with an unprecedented capacity for organisation and curses them with the looming threat of observation, tracking and incrimination. Authoritarian governments have been quick to make use of smart phones to suppress and control potential dissidents, the Communist Party of China uses digitised “social ratings” to punish those who stray from the Party line and the Russian government has even floated ideas of creating “their own internet”. Almost every autocratic country on earth has implemented technology in one way or another.

It is almost ironic that the autocratic nation most clearly defined by tradition, reaction and an opposition to the new is rapidly becoming the most effective user of these modern technologies. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, though a late starter compared to the PRC, Russia or even Turkey, is one of the first to adopt an app almost specifically tailored towards oppression. Absher, a name that translates broadly as “good tidings” or “yes, done”, was released a few months ago and has already earned some serious controversy.

Put bluntly, Absher is a tool of oppression and control; its subversive purpose is the monitoring and restriction of women’s ability to travel freely. On the surface, the app is a relatively standard government portal allowing users to renew driving licenses, apply for jobs, even to register for the Hajj to Mecca. It is an all in one app to allow Saudi men to manage their lives, jobs and households. It is in the later that the dystopian edge of the app kicks in. Via the app, Saudi men can track the location of their wives and daughters, they can see if a woman is attempting to leave the country and, at the push of a button, block their attempt to do so. Amidst all its other features, what should be an innocuous app includes a feature specifically designed not only to curtail the rights of women but to directly impede their ability to leave or, perhaps, escape their country and their “guardians”.

Perhaps the most worrying development of all is the open complicity of western companies, most blatantly Google. Google and their parent company Alphabet have faced previous criticism for their “cooperation” with the Chinese Government over sweeping measures of censorship, and has repeatedly refused to removed Absher from the Google Play store, effectively condoning the tracking, restriction and dehumanisation of women in the KSA.

Defenders of Absher point out that the “male guardianship” feature is but one element of an app with as many as 160 distinct utilities. It is this integration of authority into utility, however, that makes Absher such a terrifying concept. Male “guardianship” and the registration of women is made as mundane a behaviour as renewing ones drivers license. Such a mentality, that sees men given complete dominion over their wives, is deeply ingrained in Saudi society but is only reinforced and made more serious by the introduction of technology that furthers this dynamic of control.

A Whiggish understanding of technology is shockingly common; the idea that technological and political development are intertwined, so much so that the emergence of modern technologies will inevitably entail a similar emergence of modern social and political values. Whilst it can be appealing to see the world as on a steady march of progress, however, it is flatly untrue. Technologies are neither good nor evil and retain no inherent social or political implication outside of their base utility. Via Absher and other means, technology is being actively implemented to reinforce and expand near absolute levels of control over half of the Saudi population. American tech corporations, such as the aforementioned Google, are becoming directly complicit and have already demonstrated their unwillingness to act.

Yet western companies must be willing to take a stand and forgo potential profit for the sake of human rights. If and when they are not, it is imperative that Western Governments pass laws and regulations to ban such complicity. Notable steps have already been made. Both the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called on relevant tech companies and western politicians to take action. Indeed what brought Absher into the public discussion in Britain and the United States was the actions of 12 US Senators and Representatives, who wrote to the CEOs of Apple and Google, Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai. Among them was Senator Ron Wyden who wrote that “It is hardly news that the Saudi monarchy seeks to restrict and repress Saudi women but American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy.” Ignorance is no longer a valid argument and inaction no longer a valid direction – politicians must move now.

It will not always be possible to prevent the use of digital technology as a force of oppression, particularly as countries such as Saudi Arabia begin to develop their own digital industries and become less reliant on American and European companies. Where such action is possible, however, there is a moral imperative for Western companies to act. Absher is but one example of digitally integrated oppression and by permitting it Google set a terrifying standard. The EU, at the very least, have demonstrated their willingness to pursue tech companies who violate tax codes; it is time for them to show the same scorn to those who violate civil liberties.