Middle East governments long have had a complicated relationship with technology, and in particular with Western tech companies. Deeply interested in innovation but unwilling to relinquish control, governments from the Gulf to the Maghreb have at various times taken steps to limit the use of common applications like Skype, Viber and WhatsApp.
As with so much else, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed this.
As cities in Gulf states were locked down, the governments of both the United Arab Emirates and Oman lifted restrictions on some applications, such as Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams and Zoom, all applications that facilitate meetings and video-conference calls. The changes were needed as companies moved to home working and schools began online teaching. Skype and Zoom are still banned in several other countries across the region.
Might these changes last and even expand after the pandemic? The answer will depend on a number of factors: how hard hit regional economies are and how entrenched virtual conferencing becomes in companies and schools.
But the major issue will be political. The Middle East’s relationship with tech will depend on the public’s relationship with privacy.
On the one hand, the reasons why Middle East governments limit access to certain technology will not change. Security concerns over extremists using such applications and national concerns over where the data is stored will not go away.
As recently as February, Turkey shut off the social media platforms Twitter and Instagram during a spike in military activity in Syria’s Idlib province. Egypt has regularly disrupted tech apps and even mobile phone signals in its fight against an insurgency in Sinai. And the strict cybercrime laws of Gulf governments will not be changed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But what may change – and indeed already appears to be changing – is the relationship between the public, tech companies and governments. That may end up becoming one of the most intriguing changes of the pandemic, and it may provide governments in the region and beyond with sufficient access to what the public in those countries are doing that they no longer feel the need to concern themselves with WhatsApp calls, for example.
The adoption and regulation of technology is often about control, a shifting dance between governments, tech companies and people.
Governments always want as much control over user data as possible. Tech companies, for their part, are wary of giving governments access to their users’ data, even to law enforcement, fearing a reputational hit if their backroom deals are discovered. And if government or company surveillance is too widespread, users will migrate to other applications.
The balance turns on consent, on finding what the public and users will accept. And that has been one of the surprising revelations of the pandemic: that people have been willing to accept vast restrictions on their movements, practically overnight, and then further willing to accept enormous government and tech company access to their private data.
The test case for tech surveillance has been South Korea, the only major Asian country to beat the pandemic without locking down cities. One of its tools was widespread smartphone surveillance, both tracking those who were infected or in quarantine, and then publishing detailed itineraries of their movements and where they live, information that could be personally identifiable.
Already, every major Western country is working on contact tracing applications for smartphones, along the lines of South Korea. None has rolled it out; discussions of the privacy implications have been muted.
In the UK, where the government has handed vast quantities of sensitive, health-related data to supermarkets – so that they can prioritize delivery for those with health conditions – there was barely any public discussion and no parliamentary oversight of the move. In the US, the suggestion that both Google and Apple, makers of the two most popular smartphone operating systems, may embed tracking capability into iOS and Android has not met with resistance. Even privacy researchers have been more concerned that poorer communities may not get the updates, rather than what such widespread tracking may mean.
Tech companies and governments will have noted this. They may well conclude that fears over the use of private data were limited to a handful of vocal privacy campaigners and their allies in the media and politics.
That may prompt a shift in how tech companies deal with governments in the Middle East.
If tech companies no longer need to worry that users will desert them over privacy concerns, it may push them to strike partnership deals with states, as Middle East governments have been urging, or finding other ways to comply with the licensing requirements of governments.
The change may also come in a different way.
The pandemic has already entrenched a narrative that state control is a powerful resource that protects people. In the Middle East, that narrative is already widely accepted.
A major survey by Northwestern University last year on media use across seven Arab countries found that, while many were concerned about governments watching what they did online, more were concerned about companies doing so. That suggests that if there were a change in attitudes toward online surveillance, it might tip more in favor of governments. In other words, after the pandemic, if people were more willing to share information with tech companies, they would be even more relaxed about doing so with governments. If that were so, states may feel they had sufficient information not to worry about certain tech apps.
The Middle East is not alone in seeing a changing relationship with technology and tech companies in response to the pandemic. But whether the end of the pandemic will bring a more open relationship with technology will rely, ironically, on a more controlled political environment.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.