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Lebanon: Outrage over Blocking of VoIP

So, since the end of May I’ve had issues using Gizmo5, the SIP calling program that I was so ecstatic about some time ago. For some reason I can’t get the program to connect, all it does is spin around and tease me…until I get tired of it and force-quit the app. I’ve submitted my second support ticket to Gizmo5/Google and haven’t heard anything…

writes Kahlil at From Bumpass to Beirut. He continues:

…Part of me thinks that the issue with with Lebanon’s internet and phone regulations

His suspicions are right: Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is illegal in Lebanon according to the Telecoms Act of 2002. Until recently this law has not been enforced – however, last week the Lebanese Telecoms Ministry activated equipment which prevents the use of VoIP communications, such as Gizmo5 and Magic Jack. Skype is as of yet unblocked, though it is thought to be next on the list.

This move not only affects individuals’ communications but will also have a profound affect on businesses.

Bloggers are outraged by the move, which has led to much online discussion regarding its effect.
Mafiose13 initiated a discussion in the forum tayyar.org last week, which led to lively discussion around the subject:

As of yesterday May31 Ogero is blocking all Voice Over IP ports. Meaning any device using VOIP such as MagicJack, Linksys or Cisco VOIP boxes are all being blocked, as well as some SoftPhone VOIP services such as RingCentral and many others.

I personally verified this because I run a tech support company from Lebanon and we work with foreign clients through a variety of systems but mainly: Linksys, MagicJack and Ringcentral.
My company employs 8 LEBANESE PEOPLE and brings income and money to the country. I know many other people in the same IT Support/Customer support field and everyone is affected, besides the regular effect this will have on the Lebanese households communicating with their sons/daughters/sister/brother/mom/dad working overseas to bring money to this country.

Qifa Nabki in the post Missed Call Nation, appears annoyed, though unsurprised by the move. Amongst general dissatisfaction about the quality of internet service and telecoms in in Lebanon – a sector described in the post as a “national embarrassment,” he asks:

If I’m not wrong, telecommunications alone provides the single largest revenue stream for the government. Is it any wonder, therefore, that efforts are now being made to curtail the inroads of VoIP alternatives to exorbitant calling rates?

Le Colleague posting at Of Bar Stools and Med School shares in the dissatisfaction with Lebanon's internet services in general and outrage at this move in particular, stating in a post entitled The Farce that is Lebanese Telecom:

One would think that these broad daylight thieves would get enough revenue to thrive from the RIDICULOUSLY low quality (understatement) service they provide for such RIDICULOUSLY OUTRAGEOUS prices! But no. IT seems that they want to plug every escape route by which we can bypass their fat bank accounts, in order to make sure that we continue to happily pay for their crappy service.

While at Human Development in Lebanon it is asked:

So, who benefits from this law, anyway? Why, it's none other than Alfa and MTC, which have a virtual monopoly on the telecoms market! And don't forget the government can collect all of those taxes that wouldn't be collected when people use VoIP for free or reduced rates!

Despite the assumed profit motive behind the enforcement of this law, postulated to be motivated by Lebanon's imminent fibre-optic upgrades, which will enhance internet speed thus making VoIP services more stable and reducing telecoms revenue, many are still baffled by the move.
Qifa Nabki questions the logic of the move:

I have to wonder, though: what’s the angle? Even by the standards of this lousy government, doing away with services like Skype will be a deeply unpopular move. As Atalla attests in his piece for the Daily Star, the proposed ban has already enraged business people and entrepreneurs who are trying to compete in an increasingly global market. Students and other young professionals (who generally provide the energy and muscle for any political movement in Lebanon) are up in arms. And, most importantly, this has the potential to further alienate the most important constituency of all: Lebanese expatriates living abroad.

Note: The Daily Star article referred to can be viewed here.

While Kahlil at From Bumpass to Beirut, after discovering the reason for Gizmo5 not working, raises the following question:

My question to those regulating the communication infrastructure here in Lebanon, why block the ports when you can surely deploy your own services to provide competition to companies and services such as Skype, Gizmo5, and so on? Innovation and tech doesn’t progress when it is overly regulated, eliminating the competition and forcing people to make expensive phone calls won’t win you any love, awards, or loyalty; people will just find ways around your ban.

It appears that this move is linked to the The ESSA (Electronic Signatures and Services Law) , a restrictive internet law to be discussed on 15th June in Parliament. A draft copy of this law can be viewed here [AR].
The passing of this law, which is also causing much discussion, as could put an end to Lebanon's internet freedoms.

SMEX Beirut are campaigning actively to prevent the implementation of this law.

More information regarding this can be found on the “Stop this Law” Facebook page or by following the #stopthislaw hashtag on Twitter.

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