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Absher: 14 members of Congress demand Apple, Google remove Saudi app

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14 members of Congress have written to Apple and Google to demand that they stop hosting a Saudi government app which men can use to control and monitor women.

The group of Democratic lawmakers says that by hosting the app, called Absher, Apple and Google are “accomplices in the oppression of Saudi Arabian women.”

INSIDER was first to report at length how Absher — an all-purpose app Saudis use to interact with the authorities — can be used to grant and rescind travel permission for women, and to set up SMS alerts to track when women use their passports.

The 14 representatives — including Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Katherine Clark, and Jackie Speicer — wrote to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai calling for the app to be removed.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
AP

In mid-February, after widespread outrage, Apple and Google both pledged to investigate. But in the weeks since, neither company has said anything, and has avoided requests for comment from INSIDER.

In Thursday’s letter, the signatories said Google and Apple need to remove Absher as it “serves as [a] tracking device” used to “prevent the free movement of Saudi women.”

They said: “Twenty first century innovations should not perpetuate sixteenth century tyranny.”

Read more: Saudi Arabia tried to justify its app that lets men control where women travel amid a firestorm of criticism

“Keeping this application in your stores allows your companies and your American employees to be accomplices in the oppression of Saudi Arabian women and migrant workers,” the letter said.

Apple CEO Tim Cook told NPR he would look into the app.
AP

The letter gives a deadline of February 28 for the two companies to respond.

“We ask that your companies remove Absher from your app stores,” they said, “we look forward to a response from both of you on your companies’ next steps by February 28, 2019.”

The deadline is not enforceable.

They also highlighted a function of Absher which allows Saudis to manage migrant workers they employ. The letter said Absher lets men “constrain the movements of migrant laborers working for them.”

On this Absher form guardians can say where women can go, how long for, and which airports they can go to.
Absher

Here are the 14 representatives who signed the letter:

Jackie Speier (D-14), Donald S. Beyer Jr. (D-VA,) David Cicilline (D-RI), Katherine M. Clark (D-MA), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Henry “Hank” C. Johnson Jr. (D-GA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Nydia Velazquéz (D-NY), David Trone (D-MD), Jim Cooper (D-TN), Yvette D. Clarke (D-NY), and Brad Sherman (D-CA).

It echoed a similar letter to the tech giants from US Senator Ron Wyden on February 12, where he told Pichai and Cook the app “flies in the face of the type of society you both claim to support and defend.”

Senator for Oregon Ron Wyden.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Wyden wrote to the tech behemoths after a wave of criticism from human rights groups broke over Google and Apple for hosting the app on Google Play and the App Store.

Human Rights Watch told INSIDER: “Apps like this one can facilitate human rights abuses, including discrimination against women.”

Read more: People are leaving scathing App Store and Google Play reviews to discredit a Saudi government app that lets men control where women travel

Read the full letter below:

Dear Mr. Cook and Mr. Pichai,

By now you have been informed that your app stores currently offer a mobile app for the Saudi Ministry of Interior’s website Absher. Though the app allows millions of users to perform a variety of routine functions, we are writing to express our alarm over the app’s features which prevent the free movement of Saudi women and migrant workers. By sending a text notifying a male “guardian” when a woman’s national identification card or passport is used at an airport, the app serves as tracking device. In a few publicized cases, women fleeing persecution in Saudi Arabia had to defeat this application to leave the country and seek asylum.

Beyond facilitating harm to the human rights of Saudi women, the app allows Saudi men to constrain the movements of migrant laborers working for them. Human Rights Watch has documented abuse and exploitation of migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, some of which amounts to forced labor, trafficking, or slavery-like conditions. With a few taps of his finger on an app offered on your companies’ app stores, a Saudi man can exert near total control over the livelihood of these vulnerable migrant workers.

The ingenuity of American technology companies should not be perverted to violate the human rights of Saudi women. Twenty first century innovations should not perpetuate sixteenth century tyranny. Keeping this application in your stores allows your companies and your American employees to be accomplices in the oppression of Saudi Arabian women and migrant workers. We ask that your companies remove Absher from your app stores.

We look forward to a response from both of you on your companies’ next steps by February 28, 2019.

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