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Lebanon to Charge for Calls on Messaging Apps

Lebanon to Charge for Calls on Messaging Apps

Thursday, 17 October, 2019 - 16:00
FILE PHOTO: The WhatsApp messaging application is seen on a phone screen August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White/File Photo
Asharq Al-Awsat

Lebanon's cabinet has agreed to impose a fee on calls over WhatsApp and other similar applications, as part of efforts to boost the cash-strapped state's revenues in the country's 2020 draft budget.

Information Minister Jamal al-Jarrah said on Thursday that the cabinet had agreed a charge of 20 cents per day for calls via voice over internet protocol (VoIP), used by applications including Facebook-owned Whatsapp, Facebook calls and FaceTime.

The fee could potentially bring in up to $250 million in annual revenues from the country's estimated 3.5 million VoIP users.

The country has only two service providers, both state-owned, and some of the most costly mobile rates in the region.

Lebanese TV channels cited Telecoms Minister Mohamed Choucair as saying the fee would "not be applied without something in return" which he would announce next week.

Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said last month there were no new taxes or fees in the draft 2020 budget he sent to cabinet.

Lebanon has one of the world's highest debt burdens, low growth and crumbling infrastructure and is facing strains in its financial system from a slowdown in capital inflows.

The government has declared a state of "economic emergency" and promised steps to ward off a crisis.

Lebanon is under pressure to approve the 2020 budget to unlock some $11 billion pledged at a donor conference last year, conditional on fiscal and other reforms.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri has said the government would work to further reduce the 2020 budget deficit.

According to Choucair, the cabinet will hold a “final session" on Friday on the draft budget.

Lebanese digital rights group SMEX said the country's main mobile operators are already planning to introduce new technology that will allow them to detect whether users are trying to make internet calls using their networks.

"Lebanon already has some of the highest mobile prices in the region," SMEX said on Twitter.

The latest policy "will force users to pay for internet services twice," it added.

TechGeek365, another digital rights group, said it contacted WhatsApp and Facebook regarding the matter.

"A spokesperson mentioned that if the decision is taken, it would be a direct violation of their ToS (terms of service)," it said.

"Profiting from any specific functionality within WhatsApp is illegal," it added on Twitter.

But SMEX said that the 20 cent fee would be "a condition of data plans" offered by mobile operators.

"Also, Facebook previously complied with a social media tax in Uganda, which is effectively the same thing," it said on Twitter.

The Lebanese cabinet’s move stirred resentment, which was further exacerbated by Jarrah’s announcement that ministers would discuss a proposal to raise value-added tax by 2 percentage points in 2021 and then another 2 percentage points in 2022, until it reaches 15 percent.

After ministers agree the 2020 draft budget, they must send it to parliament for approval.

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