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Google siding with Saudi Arabia, refuses to remove government app tracking women (businessinsider.com)
148 points by SirLJ 19 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 67 comments



The "gov app tracking women" angle is a PR stunt by international advocacy groups and it points at the wrong problem.

The app provides various official services, among them a digitized version of the "yellow sheet" a legal guardian has to fill out for a woman to be able to leave the country. (https://www.rt.com/news/women-tracking-saudi-arabia-359/ from 2012 describes this particular system, the app apparently integrates it with more digital services).

The alternative isn't freedom of movement, it's having to get a signature on paper and potentially personal appearance of the legal guardian, which is harder to get (this includes: forge) than a button click on a website. As a remedy for that reduced trust in the system, it sends an SMS - to the very same device.

There are activists in Saudi Arabia (see for example https://twitter.com/monaeltahawy/status/1095360734798721025) who see value in that type of app because the degree of automation it brings makes it easier to leave the country without supervision (e.g. by stealing the legal guardian's phone).


I do think that this is worth noting, however, I still think Google should not be hosting it as it's still facilitating an immoral action (running an oppressive government that doesn't respect freedom of movement). I guess it's kind of a deontologist/consequentialist thing.


> it's still facilitating an immoral action (running an oppressive government that doesn't respect freedom of movement)

In that case, Google and Apple should completely withdraw from Saudi Arabia: no iPhones, no appstore, no AdSense, ... Any of these lead to tax revenue which facilitates running that oppressive government.

That's not what people are demanding though: they want some inconsequential app removed to demonstrate that they can coerce big tech companies to do their bidding.

The icing on the cake is that they essentially work with strategies straight from the "fake news" handbook, by making it sound as if the app provides a new means of control ("government app which lets men track women and control their travel", straight from the title of the linked article).

Even more annoying to me is that one of these campaigners is D-CA representative Jackie Speier who promotes herself on Twitter (https://twitter.com/repspeier) as "Fearless Fighter for women’s equality, LGBTQ rights & the disenfranchised."

Given that women who demand equality, LGBTQ folks and the disenfranchised (e.g. Filipino immigrants) still have to fear for their lives in Saudi Arabia, where's the house bill to setup a full blown embargo until human rights are universally respected? _That_ would be fearless.

Demanding removal of that app? That's merely flexing their muscles in a US domestic political battle. Human rights don't deserve to be abused like that.


> In that case, Google and Apple should completely withdraw from Saudi Arabia: no iPhones, no appstore, no AdSense, ... Any of these lead to tax revenue which facilitates running that oppressive government.

> That's not what people are demanding though: they want some inconsequential app removed to demonstrate that they can coerce big tech companies to do their bidding.

Actually, I kind of am demanding that they not do business with oppressive regimes. You make it sounds like some huge sacrifice. It is not. And it would give them a shred of moral credibility.

Or, on the other hand, if Google must do business with Saudi Arabia, I expect them to shut up and never again speak of virtue again. I expect them to let neo-nazi apps trend on the front page of their app store. Because they have no moral authority any more.


If you are going that path then why not tell Google stop hosting other immoral project like news apps that publish pro war on drugs stories and misinformation about the drugs, preventing people from making informed decisions and causing deaths indirectly? That's more serious than women's tracking app.


No, I think that offensive opinions are an order of magnitude LESS serious than a women's tracking app.

Are you serious? Publishing misinformation about drugs is more serious than the handmaiden app?


Saudi Arabia only freed their African slaves in 1962. What if a new king re-enslaved them? I guess Google would be fine with hosting slave auction apps then, by this logic.

I am so disgusted with the den of cowards and hypocrites at Google.

Supercilious Google developers would condescend to us with platitudes of "Black lives matter" while literally hosting an enslavement app. It really would happen that way.

Google would censor someone who makes fun of feminism with extreme prejudice, but will not lift a finger for this actual handmaiden app.

They removed the Gab app at the drop of a hat because they claim to be against white supremacy, but they tacitly endorse the far more dangerous Chinese ethnostate to round up minorities into actual camps. The Chinese government forces Uyghurs in some regions to install apks on their android phones, and Google will NOT interfere, even though it would be easy to blacklist them. Maybe it would be ineffective, but it would be doing something. I don't want to hear that cooperating with oppression is somehow for the greater good. This is not who we are.

There are actual people who are suffering as a direct result of Google's refusal to take a stand about who uses their platform. They are clearly willing to remove apps that displease them for arbitrary reasons, so they have no excuse not to act.


I'd encourage you to read this tweet[0] and this article[1]. They provide perspectives from Saudi women. To do my best to summarize:

Indeed, the app is bad. That it exists or needs to exist is a bad thing. But given the Saudi government and Saudi law, the opinion of many women in Saudi Arabia is that scrapping the app would hurt their agency, not help it. They need male approval to travel either way, and by making it easier to get, the app, in practice, gives women more agency by lowering the bureaucratic barriers to travel.

The best way I can put it is that the app here doesn't really particularly help the oppressors. Like maybe, in a contrived way, you can argue that by making the oppression lighter weight you're less likely to have a full on revolution or something. But then, you've still lessened the oppression. That's not a bad thing.

But if removing the app from the store makes the experience of women in Saudi Arabia worse, which is exactly what many of those women are saying, then removing it doesn't do anything. You're just asking to have the Saudi society regress even further to a position where in practice women had even less agency.

Is that better?

[0]: https://twitter.com/monaeltahawy/status/1095360734798721025 an

[1]: http://time.com/5532221/absher-saudi-arabia-what-to-know/


Could you provide more references backing up the 'opinion of many women in Saudi Arabia ...' part of your comment?

The tweet seems to reference a single anecdote received in a text message, and the article mentions "... many Absher users within Saudi Arabia have come to its defense", without mentioning any particular supportive groups (or providing numbers).


Unfortunately it's particularly difficult to hear the voices of an oppressed group, especially one where the majority of the commentary is going to be in another language.

So no. You're probably stuck trusting time on this one.


I think that American corporations should not facilitate evil.

You might be 100% right, I certainly don't know the perspectives of Saudi women, but I will take your word for it.

But if Google resisting evil means that the Saudi government punishes Saudi women, then that is the fault of the Saudi government.

Should Google accede to every despotic government that threatens its people? I wrote in a previous comment about how Google does nothing to prevent China from using its technology to put innocent people in camps. Perhaps China will be even more brutal if Google tries to thwart them. But I still think Google has an obligation not to cooperate.

I sympathize with what you are saying. And if I were a woman in Saudi Arabia, I would probably not want the app banned too.


How is loosening the restriction on freedom of movement for women evil?

That's what this app does.

I'm also confused by the china comparison. I'm not aware of any google tech China is using to oppress, but even if that is true, your China example is technology causing more oppression. This is the opposite. The technology reduces the oppression.

You're presenting a very weird moral arfument. If you thought that not supporting this app would accelerate the fall of the Saudi regime, I'd say you're naive, but ok. But you're not saying that, you're saying that American companies shouldn't work with groups you don't like, even when the result is objectively good, because, for lack of a better term, virtue signalling. Why?


> I'm also confused by the china comparison. I'm not aware of any google tech China is using to oppress, but even if that is true, your China example is technology causing more oppression. This is the opposite. The technology reduces the oppression.

Google could very easily prevent China from using Android phones to oppress people. China is forcing people to install well known .apk files on their phones. Google has a very well developed infrastructure for blacklisting malware from their devices. But they refuse to life a finger.

> You're presenting a very weird moral arfument. If you thought that not supporting this app would accelerate the fall of the Saudi regime, I'd say you're naive, but ok. But you're not saying that, you're saying that American companies shouldn't work with groups you don't like, even when the result is objectively good, because, for lack of a better term, virtue signalling. Why?

In the short term it may be objectively good, sure. But no, I still don't like them working with groups "I don't like". I don't like American corporations legitimizing oppressive regimes. And what you are essentially saying is that if an oppressive regime threatens to hold a population hostage, then we must work with them.


>Google could very easily prevent China from using Android phones to oppress people. China is forcing people to install well known .apk files on their phones. Google has a very well developed infrastructure for blacklisting malware from their devices. But they refuse to life a finger.

As far as I know, Google has very little control over devices in China. They're almost all developed by other manufacturers (Huawei for example), and don't use Google Apps or Vanilla android, but instead use Huawei or OnePlus or Oppo's flavor of android, and use one of these[1] app stores.

So Google could add code to blacklist these apks to android source, and then Chinese manufacturers could remove it. Or they could have GMSCore do it, and since that's blocked in china, it wouldn't do anything.

So, not to get too sidetracked here, but I'd be curious to know what actions Google could take to do this, short of relicensing Android (which also wouldn't actually fix the underlying issue here, it would just cut Google's connection).

>And what you are essentially saying is that if an oppressive regime threatens to hold a population hostage, then we must work with them.

No, I'm saying we should work to improve the lives of people under oppressive governments, even if that requires working with the oppressive governments. Should the US Government not provide humanitarian aid to North Korea? Is letting people starve worth being able to say that NK isn't "legitimate"?

[1]: https://www.appinchina.co/market/app-stores/


Some interesting arguments, and if this does genuinely increase freedom of movement, that's good.

But do you see any risk that this could set in motion different, more controlling behaviors for the men who authorize women's movement?

It's presumably a click or two in an app - maybe that will lead to better outcomes for women, or perhaps not? Would they have more or less empathy for the situations involved, for example?

I don't claim by any means to be an expert here, far from it, but I think there's a deeper discussion here and you may be brushing it aside; it feels like there's evidence missing that the app will definitely lead to better outcomes.


My understanding is that the reality of the situation is that Saudi Arabia is extremely patriarchal by law. Women need men's permission to do anything. By reducing the friction for men to approve women's activities, you make men more likely to let women do stuff.

Now the man doesn't need to go to a government office to let his wife travel, he just taps some stuff in an app. Like I mentioned, there's an argument to be made (that I personally disagree with) that this increased friction will somehow accelerate change in saudi society or something. But the argument there is that by inconveniencing oppressors you'll somehow make them more empathetic to the oppressed. History says that doesn't usually happen. You just annoy the men and then don't help the women. Change comes slowly and incrementally, not all at once in an avalanche.


None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free. -- Goethe


>Saudi Arabia only freed their African slaves in 1962.

Do you have any further reading on this?


Slavery too is a 'process'. And creating an app will no doubt make it more 'efficient' for slave owners and slaves and maybe even provide the one off opportunity for one to escape.

So let's forget about the slavery and focus on the 'modernization' of this 'activity' and maybe even celebrate the off chance some slaves scramble to freedom. For 'technical folks' this makes sense.


Even if loopholes like this can be used to enable emancipation in the short-term, the longer the functionality exists, the more likely it is that its security will be tightened down, to the point at which those thefts - which likely have serious consequences themselves, if discovered - will no longer be possible.

It becomes a question of whether you support the principles behind the functionality provided, rather than whether you support the ability for a few people to escape thanks to bugs/exploits in the software.


> It becomes a question of whether you support the principles behind the functionality provided

I prefer to listen to voices of people directly affected rather than organizations operating on the other side of the world.

As soon as women living in Saudi Arabia are saying that having this app is harmful, I'm all for having it gone. Right now what I hear is that the system is harmful (I think we're in violent agreement about that) and that the app helps in some cases while not making anything worse in all other situations.

When it comes to "supporting the principles":

I'd rather have them keep apps in the stores that aren't harmful (as said: I believe that this app doesn't make anything worse, in some cases it may even make things better) and stay out of morality based decisions, because at some point their morality will not agree with mine.

Apparently Google and Apple aren't too hot on unionization (at least there don't seem to be unions in either company). Should they remove apps by unions from their stores because they don't support the principle?

(but for the record: I'm not a fan of app stores as only, or even just primary application distribution channel. IMHO there should be no such curator who has to make this type of call)

> thanks to bugs/exploits in the software

It's not bugs in the software that enable leaving the country without physical presence and signature of a legal guardian. It's that these (hard to forge) factors were replaced by (easy to forge) phone ownership.

By removing the app they'd go a long way to fix that "bug".


[flagged]


I don't know why you are getting down-voted. It would be 100% consistent.

People on HN would even rationalize it the same way.


The app is basically a webview around a government website, and the notification happens by SMS. I'm still struggling to understand why anyone thinks removing the app will have any effect - it's not like removing an app from a store would cause SMS messages to stop.


Because their App Store is curated (you couldn't, say, have a child pornography app) and so by permitting this app they are saying it's OK with them.


They're curating for user experience, not for political opinions. If someone uploaded a vim clone google isn't taking a stance in the editor war by letting it stay up.

"Saying it's OK with them." If they made a public statement "we are not ok with this, but the app stays anyways" is everyone satisfied now? Everyone knows google is in favour of womens right. People want them to take it down because they think google won't, so it gives them an opportunity to complain about how sexist google is. Then the next time something happens regarding women near google, they'll say wow google is so sexist remember how they made women get permissions slips to travel? When in fact google is completely powerless before the might of a nation state, and the worst they can do is make saudi arabia host the apk on their own website.


> They're curating for user experience, not for political opinions. If someone uploaded a vim clone google isn't taking a stance in the editor war by letting it stay up.

That may have been true in 2015. But no, Google us curating for political reasons. Google claims that they are concerned about things like the safety of women and LGBT groups. They have banned apps like Gab.com for purely quite flimsy political reasons. So you would think that Google would have no problem banning this app.

Thus, their approving of an app which literally facilitates patriarchal misogyny on a nation-wide scale, while banning apps that simply make misogynist jokes, is colossal hypocrisy on their part.


Child porn is illegal, so even if the app store wasn't curated it wouldn't the allowed.

There are a ton of other things that are legal but that google doesn't allow though, so your point still stands.


The system of tracking and restricting womens’ movement would also be illegal in most countries, so which set of laws do we use? At some point we do have to choose, in the same way we would if child porn were legal in a country Google did business in. Would they then have an excuse to host a version of Tindr for tracking kids?


Actually read an article where the app was helping the daughter to escape: she stole Daddy’s phone and that way he did not get any notifications and she could approve her own leaving the country!


Those are SMS messages, not app notifications delivered via Google/Firebase Cloud Messaging (or Apple Push Notification Service on Apple platforms).

But yes, it would have been much harder without the app, because the old system would have required her dad to appear in-person, wet-sign specific paper forms, etc.


> In order to flee, Nourah used her father’s phone to give herself permission to travel, disabled his notifications and flew to Turkey. From there she traveled to Georgia, then bought a ticket to Australia via the United Arab Emirates, although she feared that the Emirati government would catch her in transit and return her to Saudi Arabia.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/11/world/middleeast/saudi-ar...


So if I made a webview to PornHub, and sent feed notification over SMS, that would be okay?

I'm sure Google would take it down in a heartbeat.

And as you said, it wouldn't have any effect on PornHub as people would still go there through the website, but it shows that Google is okay with government-backed slavery but not with porn.


In some countries being gay is punishable by death. It doesn't mean your walled garden app store having an app to find and punish gay people is OK.


I don't think anyone is saying it's OK. Just that removing the app will have 0 effect on the current law or the outcome. They'd just go back to pen/paper like they had to before the app was available, and take longer.


If removing the app has 0 effect, then having the app has 0 effect also, so might as well remove it, no?


See this other comment: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19292651

In short, the app, as awful as it is, is an improvement for Saudi women. Getting rid of it will hurt them.


> "They'd just go back to pen/paper like they had to before the app was available, and take longer."

That would inconvenience Saudi men, would it not?


No, it would inconvenience Saudi women, because the men wouldn't bother doing the extra work.


Would the Saudis really have created this app if it didn't convenience Saudi men? I doubt that. I don't think the Saudi government is in the business of conveniencing Saudi women, except insofar as that's an incidental byproduct of conveniencing Saudi men.


Because there's a space to say something to the government of Saudi Arabia "Listen, what you're doing is fucking disgusting. Maybe I can't stop you, but I sure as hell don't have to help you."


We should find out what carrier they are using to introduce those messages into the SMS network and demand that other carriers blacklist them until they stop.


Presumably Saudi Telecom. Not sure why you're focused on the carrier. Why not simply demand your phone company not connect to Saudi Arabia's country code?


Personally, I have not seen people citing the elimination of the SMS system as an effect of removing the app, so I can't relate with struggling to understand why people would claim such a thing. Also, you speak as though there are no other reasons to want the app removed. Have you considered the accessibility an app provides over a web site to new users? Or the simple subjective perception of its availability?


"New Users" register IRL, and can then use either the website on desktop, the website on mobile, or the app. There is no ease of onboarding provided by the app, given that onboarding happens IRL.

Perception varies by cultural context, so it doesn't really matter how people with no connection to Saudi Arabia perceive things.

Removing the app would mean making travel even harder, not easier - you should look at how all of this worked before the online service was introduced.


There is no ease of onboarding provided by the app

Removing the app would mean making travel even harder

These seem like contradictory statements.


Interesting comments in the Play Store: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=sa.gov.moi&hl=...


Wow, some serious quality astroturfing there. Who knew that every single Saudi man suddenly wanted to write exactly five lines of effusive praise about their government's app on the same day!


Never underestimate the power of Saudi twitter (not just their bots, which surely do exist).


My favorite 1 star comment

"This app is great! I've been looking for a good way to track my teenage wife and build my very own virtual prison so she can't escape my insatiable desire for sex with underage women and this is it! Google you've really outdone yourself this time! I can even set her as missing if she doesn't answer my texts so other enlightened men can hunt her for me!"


Couldn't women use this app in the place of their husbands/guardians by faking their info to escape?


Yes they can, which is an improvement over previous procedure involving physical presense. Saudi feminist activists are actually against removing the app because that makes escape harder.


“Slippery slope” defined. Once you start deleting apps/speech, the requests and outrage become never-ending.


"Slippery slope fallacy" defined. Simply agreeing to outlaw some things — child pornography, incitement to murder, violation of human rights — doesn't set you on an irreversible course to outlawing everything. Partial regulation by community consensus is a fundamental tenet of all human civilisation.


I think there's a big difference between opinion-driven censorship and legal-driven.


What about the "slippery slope" of allowing apps that facilitate human rights violations by oppressive regimes, as long as the app's nexus to it is relatively minor?


but we're already removing apps we deem against our morals.


>Once you start deleting apps/speech, the requests and outrage become never-ending.

Apps are not speech, and apps have been deleted in the past, because Google has terms of service which can be violated. And yet, requests and outrage have not already become never-ending, therefore it is already demonstrably false that any attempt to delete an app must lead to never ending requests and outrage, because neither human beings nor society work that way.

"slippery slope" seen for the empty concern trolling that it is.


Remove all content mentioned in a DMCA takedown request? Reasonable, not worth spending the money to go to court over.

Remove an application that facilitates subjugation of human beings? That's going a little too far if you ask pbreit.


You believe states have a right to free speech?


Yeah, unless we are speaking about gab.


We're way past the slippery slope though. Google already is removing apps for completely frivolous reasons. They removed gab.com because some nazi trolls were using it, so that is the standard that Google has established. And by that standard, they are fine with the handmaiden app.


Guys, come on, please. This app is an improvement for women in Saudi Arabia. It lowers the barrier to their being able to travel. It isn't always about just keeping your hands clean. You also have to sometimes help people. And it may leave your principles sullied but what are those rigid rules good for if they don't help someone be free.

If we say we're not going to participate in this and then we turn our backs on them we've made their lives so much harder and given them no help. Tomorrow you'll forget you participated in an outraged comment thread and move on.

But Saudi women will still be there. And all that they'd have for it all is that their lives are harder.

Please, refrain from boarding the outrage train this time.


I am not a big fan of Islamic regimes and the Islamic law but then I think American citizens should realize that not all other countries share their values and American corporations are not beholden to any values American society might pretend to have.

I would rather ask American people pressurize their government from not selling weapons to Saudis and not to protect their Royal family. That does 1000x damage to Saudi women and American values more that Google making things simple for Saudi Arabian women to move around.

Would you rather have a scenario where a woman needs to wait for the husband to drive to the airport and permit her to travel ?


On a completely unrelated note, I like the app's logo, it's a reduction of the app's Arabic name. It would normally look like this: أبشر


I'd forgotten about this issue. Now that Google has made it an issue again, let's hope that means Apple will make its response public soon.


How the mighty have fallen. From once defending freedom and liberty to advocating looking the other way when an app that grossly violates the basic human rights of an entire gender shows up.

The top voted comment betrays the current moral compass of the tech community, nothing is too regressive to not 'normalize' and hand wave away.

But given the community's U turn from freedom lovers to supporters of invasive profiling and eager builders of surveillance systems this yet more evidence of the community's dramatic slide into irrelevance, unless the conversation is about startups or money.

The good news is for those with some moral spine this is not going to fly. There is no way Google or Apple can continue to host this app once it is widely known. Others will fight and win this battle while you plot your next billion dollar unicorn to 'save the world'.


Very interesting to see Google retain an app designed to shackle Saudi women with digital chains.

While Google employees openly express discontent with Google’s involvement with US DOD projects.

Gen 1 Silicon Valley was built on a foundation of US Defense funding.

How much is Saudi/Qatari/Emirati sovereign wealth fund money funding the current generation of Silicon Valley?

I’ve worked with numerous women from conservative islamic countries.

All but onee are now settled legally in countries with considerably more freedoms for females.

One is still working with the sword of Damocles dangling overhead in terms of arranged marriage.

One female GSB classmate of mine is Egyptian working in Saudi Arabia in a tenuous position without a male family sponsor/guardian.

Their country, their rules......

But our countries and companies, our rules.

Some consistent backbone by Google would be nice to see, not just in countries where the consequences of having a backbone are minimal.




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