In brief: In February, reports emerged of an app available on Google’s Play and Apple’s App stores in Saudi Arabia that, among other things, allows male guardians to track women’s whereabouts and set detailed permissions for travelling. Following calls to remove the app, Google has refused.
Absher is an app available via Google Play Store and the Apple App Store. The app has many features such as paying parking fines, registering a birth, or renewing a driving license. But one feature has led to an outcry from human rights campaigners – the ability for men to track and either permit or deny travelling plans made by women.
On February 21, 14 representatives from Congress wrote to both Google and Apple demanding removal of the app, alleging that “women fleeing persecution in Saudi Arabia had to defeat this application to leave the country and seek asylum.” The letter gave a deadline of February 28 to respond.
According to Business Insider, Google has now confirmed to Rep. Jackie Speier that they will not be removing the app from their Play Store, while Apple have yet to answer beyond stating that they are ‘investigating’. Google said that the app “does not violate any agreements and can therefore remain on the Google Play store.”
Under Saudi Arabia’s Sharia laws, women aren’t allowed out in public without a male guardian present, and the app works as an extension of this. Men who register their wives and children as ‘dependents’ within the Absher app can receive text message alerts when such dependents attempt to use a passport or ID card to travel. These ‘guardians’ can even set details permissions to allow single journeys, multiple journeys or none at all.
While Apple’s decision is as yet unknown, this move by Google seems to go against their usual rhetoric about their purported values and the role they want to play in society. It’s hard to see how facilitating the oppression of women fits in with Google’s old motto of ‘Don’t be evil.’