One morning last week, I awoke to find that some Lebanese friends of mine had been posting on Facebook throughout the Levantine morning about using Viber, a mobile communications app acquired by Japan’s Rakuten for $900 million in February that allows free calls and text messaging. .
Lebanon has crippling connectivity issues associated with its state-owned telecoms, a robust entrepreneurial culture and a global diaspora, all reasons why an affordable and reliable mode of communication is crucial to daily life. Skype and Whatsapp are also very popular there. But Viber has become favorable because, unlike Skype, it never requires a credit card, and unlike Whatsapp, it has free voice service.
This would seem to make Viber a clear market leader in Lebanon, except the pesky fact that Viber founder and CEO Talmon Marco was formerly the Chief Information Officer for the Israeli Defence Forces, the sworn enemy of much of Lebanon. This connection is no secret. Marco has sworn in the press that Viber, which is headquartered in Cyprus, has no connection to the Israeli government and will never share user information with third parties. In the past, the Lebanese Telecommunications Ministry tried to make the case that it was protecting its citizens from Israeli espionage by banning Viber. In other words, this is a tricky situation.
Viber has yet to answer multiple request for comment over the last ten days regarding the app’s seeming unlikely popularity.
Viber, and all voice-over-IP (VOIP) services for that matter, have been banned in Lebanon since 2012, but enforcement is weak and the apps remain extremely popular. Workarounds for the ban are published widely on the internet, so users have typically been able to stay one step ahead of the authorities. American gripes about Comcast and AT&T pale in comparison to the timbre of telecoms disputes in Lebanon. In 2008, for example, government threats to shutdown Hezbollah’s private telecommunications network triggered a street war that resulted in the Shiite militia shutting down the airport and occupying much of Beirut.
Lebanon is not the only Middle Eastern country where citizens have rushed to Viber to deliver them from inadequate broadband and mobile networks. In Saudi Arabia, Viber remains popular despite a similar ban. In the Kingdom, however, the thorny issue was security – the Saudi government was frustrated that Viber would not comply with its request to share information for anti-terrorism operations. In response to these governmental interventions, Viber is developing a VPN product which will soon debut as a beta version in Saudi Arabia, allowing users to circumvent the ban.
In Lebanon, regular mobile calls and texts are prohibitively expensive. Rates are around 30 cents per minute for calls and 10 cents per text. And the revenue from these services provide as much as 30 percent of government income. Therefore, free services like Viber and Whatsapp represent potentially a very disruptive force to government interests and critical relief for citizens.
Apparently, this relief is significant enough for everyday Lebanese citizens to put aside any paranoia about Israeli intelligence snooping their communications with friends and family. When I asked my Lebanese friends about the Viber-IDF connection, they shrugged it off. With an attitude that parallels most Americans’ response to recent NSA espionage revelations, they are willing to put up with such privacy concerns in exchange for access to services that really work.
[image adapted from wikimedia]