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Absher: Google joins Apple in probing Saudi government app



Google has joined Apple in promising to investigate a Saudi app that lets men control women’s travel, as pressure from rights groups and international lawmakers builds on the tech giants.

Google will review the app to determine if it is in line with its policies, a spokesman told the New York Times on Wednesday. It follows Apple CEO Tim Cook pledging to investigate.

“A Google spokesman confirmed that the company is assessing the app to determine if it is in accordance with its policies,” the Times reported.

Google and Apple have failed to respond to repeated requests for comment from Business Insider.

BI’s sister website INSIDER revealed details about Absher earlier this month, and published criticism from human rights groups, which triggered US politicians to call on the tech giants to rethink the app.


A number of high-profile US politicians condemned Apple and Google on Wednesday. They called on the tech giants to kill the service from their app stores.

Democratic Party Caucus Vice Chair Katherine Clark, from Massachusetts’ 5th district, tweeted: “Absher is a patriarchal weapon: it allows Saudi men to track women, restrict their travel, and enable human rights violations.

Rep. Katherine Clark speaking in Congress.

“#Apple and #Google must stop facilitating this dangerous tool of control,” Clark added.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, representing New York’s 12th district, tweeted: “An app available on Google/Apple’s App store helps Saudi Arabia enforce its guardianship system that doesn’t allow women to travel without permission from a male guardian. No company should help w/ oppression of women!”

Maloney also encouraged the hashtag “#DropTheAPP.”

On Tuesday, US Senator Ron Wyden wrote to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai demanding they “immediately remove” Absher from the App Store and Google Play.

The app “flies in the face of the type of society you both claim to support and defend,” Wyden wrote. “American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy,” he said, calling the Saudi system of control over women “abhorrent.”

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

Before Wyden wrote to the CEOs, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and women’s rights activist Yasmine Mohammed were first to challenge Apple and Google.

“Apps like this one can facilitate human rights abuses, including discrimination against women,” Rothna Begum, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch said.

Read more: Q&A: The hurdles and obstacles Saudi women runaways face

Yasmine Mohammed, an ex-Muslim activist who campaigns and writes on women’s rights, said: “There’s a definite tragedy in the world’s most technologically progressive platforms, Apple and Google, facilitating the most archaic misogyny.”

European and Australian lawmakers pile on

Dutch MP Kees Verhoeven tweeted: “Apple and Google offer the Saudi government app Absher, which limits the freedom of women to travel.” He added it was right for Amnesty and Human Rights Watch to “call the tech giants to reconsider offering them!”

Australian Senator Eric Abetz published a detailed press release condemning Google and Apple for hosting the app. “This app is being used as a tool of oppression and to restrict the free movement of people in Saudi Arabia,” the release said.

Read more: Saudi Arabia runs a huge, sinister online database of women that men use to track them and stop them from running away

The UK government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) would not condemn the app directly, but said it wants to see an end to the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia, which the app encourages

A page on Absher where a guardian can see which permissions are active, and easily change them if needed.

An FCO spokesperson said: “We continue to call for an end to the guardianship system to allow women to fully participate in Saudi society.” Addressing the specific travel function on Absher, Renate Künast, chairwoman of Germany’s Alliance ’90/The Greens party, tweeted: “Why do @Apple & @Google condone this? @GoogleDE Are you campaigning against it?”

Her ministerial colleague Tabea Rößner tweeted: “Don’t be evil! -Experience shows, however, companies that are concerned with maximizing profits have no conscience.”

Concerning the app’s travel permissions function, Nate Schenkkan, the director for special research at Freedom House tweeted that “technology can be used to reinforce oppressive social structures.”

The app raises awkward questions for Apple and Google, two of the biggest players in Silicon Valley, where tech firms have well-established links to Saudi Arabia.

Both firms hosted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last year.The crown prince got a rare tour inside the $5 billion Apple Park campus, in California, which included face time with Cook and other top executives.

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