Alexander McNabb

Google Voice, Censorship, Media Idiocy

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There has been a great deal of concern and speculation this week regarding a possible move against Google by the UAE’s telecom regulator, the TRA. Much of this concern has been triggered by appalling journalism which, for some reason, people have been taking seriously. It really is the biter bit – social media conversations driven by sloppy, lacklustre reporting from the very people that argue their continued existence is justified by their unique ability to provide us with ‘context’ and ‘analysis’.

First of the block was Emirates Business 24×7 the former newspaper (ahem) that has been transformed, chrysalis-like into a beautiful Internet butterfly. Their story earlier this week, “Google to launch localised versions of VoIP in the Middle East” was nothing other than an awful example of a story that doesn’t stand up its headline – the story itself contains the immortal comment from Google (the bit that was meant to justify the headline):

“The feature is not available in Mena. Google will be rolling out additional localised versions but we have nothing to announce at the moment.”

You’ll notice the one thing Google quite spefically does not say is that localised versions of its Google Voice VoIP service will be introduced to users in the MENA region. Cravenly, Emirates Business has since changed the headline on its website to read “Google to launch localised versions of VoIP”, which is an entirely different story and, in fact, utterly lacking in any news value whatsoever.

This story has prompted speculation that Google would, indeed, launch this service. Given that Google Voice does pretty much what Skype does, this would of course induce the TRA to block the Google Voice site (Arabian Business, in an attention-seeking piece, carried some dire predictions from some ‘analysts’ to this effect), which is just what it has in fact done. Honest. Take a look here.

Given that Google’s own site contained text to the effect (the text displayed if your IP is non-US) that you can’t access this service which is only open to subscribers in the USA, blocking it did seem a tad redundant.

Presumably Google will be seeking to introduce the service legally to the many different jurisdictions around the world in which it is active. In many of these, this will involve seeking a telecommunications operator licence of one sort or another, working with a local telco or braving the country’s regulator and any action (if, indeed, any) it chooses to take against unlicensed telecommunications services.

Poor old Google didn’t say a word about bringing this to the UAE. But the UAE seems to have sent an unequivocal message to Google just in case it was thinking about it. And all, I suspect, because of a sloppy piece of journalism…

For what it’s worth, as far as I can see, the move is unlikely to affect Gmail or any other part of Google’s services unless Google starts to integrate the voice platform with other Google properties – which is something you could actually see makes a great deal of sense in the long run. Don’t forget, bits of Google (Orkut) have long been blocked here without losing the rest (see also Yahoo!’s Flickr). So it’s not time to hit the panic button quite yet…

Meanwhile, I have to say I think the TRA is looking increasingly Canute-like…

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