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Bahrain to study restrictions on VoIP services

By Matt Smith

DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain is to study whether to restrict Internet-based telecom services, the communications minister of the restive Arab state told Reuters, although no final decision was imminent.

Internet-based communications including Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), instant messaging and social media helped activists launch and nurture the uprisings that toppled long-standing rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in 2011.

Bahrain, a majority Shi'ite country ruled by the Sunni al Khalifa family, has also been buffeted by political unrest since 2011, with mostly Shi'ite Bahrainis agitating for democratic reforms and a greater say in government.

Many Arab opposition activists prefer to use VoIP and other Internet technologies to communicate because they are much harder to bug than a regular phone line, and cheaper.

Bahrain's Minister of State for Communications said the government did not monitor conventional telecommunications and a decision to study the use of VoIP was motivated by a variety of risks posed by the technology.

"There are examples of VoIP technology being used for pornography, which naturally clashes with our values in the kingdom," said the minister, Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammed al-Khalifa. "We also would not want technology being used to subvert state security, or be used in fraudulent enterprises like phishing and identity theft."

Since the Arab Spring uprisings, several Gulf governments have pushed for greater oversight and control of VoIP and other hard-to-trace communication tools such as BlackBerry Messenger.

Saudi Arabia, which is connected to Bahrain by a causeway and sent troops to help put down the protests on the island in 2011, warned the likes of Skype and Whatsapp in March that they flouted local rules.

The Saudi government banned VoIP provider Viber last month.

Bahrain's government said last week it may introduce new legislation to govern VoIP to "ensure that the appropriate public policies and regulation are in place".

Asked by email when a decision was likely to be made on whether to restrict VoIP in Bahrain, Sheikh Fawaz replied:

"We are studying this issue but don't have a timeline yet, nor are we close to considering a ban or restriction on the use of VoIP technology."

BAD FOR BUSINESS

VoIP allows free internet-to-internet phone calls and messaging, while tariffs for internet-to-mobile or landline phones are dramatically cheaper than by conventional means.

For that reason, commercial concerns may be a factor in recent government scrutiny of these services. All 15 Gulf telecom operators are part-owned by state-linked institutions to varying degrees.

Competition is fierce among Bahrain's three mobile operators and about 10 internet providers, facilitated by the most pro-consumer regulator in the Gulf, with the surging use of Internet-based communications tools adding further pressure on earnings.

Former monopoly Bahrain Telecommunications Co (Batelco) has reported declining profits in 11 quarters out of 12. Zain Bahrain, a unit of Kuwait's Zain, said its first-quarter net income fell 32 percent from a year earlier.

But operators have not asked the regulator to restrict VoIP access, Sheikh Fawaz said.

According to the ministry, nearly 100,000 VoIP calls were made over a recent four-day period. International call minutes over VoIP outnumbered those over fixed lines.

(Reporting by Matt Smith; editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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