RIYADH: The office of California Congresswoman Jackie Speier on Tuesday confirmed to Arab News that Google has informed it that Absher, the Saudi government e-services app, does not violate any of its policies and will remain in the Google Play app store, as reported by Business Insider.
The Democratic representative was one of 14 members of Congress who wrote to technology giants Apple and Google asking them to withdraw the app from their stores on the grounds that by hosting it they are “accomplices in the oppression of Saudi Arabian women.” The controversy stems from criticisms that the app can be used by men to track women and control where they travel.
Speier’s office confirmed that Google told the congresswoman it had reviewed the app but did not find it in violation of its terms or conditions. Apple are still looking into it, the office added.
In a statement on March 2, after learning of Google’s decision, Speier expressed disappointment at the responses from both companies.
“The responses received so far from Apple and Google are unsatisfactory,” she said. “As of today, the Absher app remains available in both the Apple App store and the Google Play store even though they can easily remove it. Not only do they have the capability to take action, they have done so previously with the removal of the Living Hope Ministries app, which encouraged users to ‘convert’ LGBTQ individuals, based on its ability to cause harm.
“Facilitating the detention of women seeking asylum and fleeing abuse and control unequivocally causes harm. To say I’m disappointed in their failure to show a sustained commitment to human rights is an understatement. I will be following up on this issue with my colleagues.”
Google declined to comment when contacted by Arab News.
Absher, Saudi Arabia’s “one-click” e-services app, was launched by the Interior Ministry in 2015. Regarded as the leading government platform for Saudi citizens and expats, it provides easy and quick access to 150 services and features.
“The number of women using Absher increased remarkably in 2018,” Absher manager Atiyah Al-Anzy told Arab News. “We found female users have more services now, with driving licenses, account registration, so they have more need.”
Brig. Gen. Khaled Alkhesifan, the deputy director of technology at Jawazat, the passport agency, said: “People will now be able to open bank accounts through Absher. We always listen to our customers through social media and if there’s a demand for certain services, we do our best to arrange it.” The total number of Absher users has reached 11.6 million, he added.
In a recent New York Times article, the app was criticized as a “tool of repression” following claims by Oregon’s Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and human-rights groups.
The Saudi Ministry of Interior criticized what it described as attempts to politicize the use of technology that represents the legitimate rights of its users.