Govt. Approves Imposing Fees on Free Online Calling Apps
The decline in telecom revenues seems to be a concern for the Lebanese state with the revenues of the sector falling by about 33% from 2017 and 2018, reports said.
The Telecommunications Ministry attributed the decline to the use of free online calling applications including WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, Facebook Call and other.
At the Cabinet meeting Wednesday, the ministers agreed to impose a 20 cents fee per day for each WhatsApp subscriber or any similar application.
Shall the Parliament approve that Cabinet’s proposal, subscribers will pay an equivalent of $6 per month for the service, said the reports.
If approved, the new fees will reportedly provide $216 million per year to the State’s treasury.
Later on Thursday, Information Minister Jamal Jarrah confirmed that the Cabinet had approved to impose a daily fee of $0.20 on WhatsApp calls.
He added that the decision would be effective as of January 1, 2020.
Jarrah did not provide more details but 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 latest policy is part of a series of austerity measures being introduced by the government in an attempt to rescue the country's ailing economy and secure $11 billion in aid pledged by international donors last year.
Growth in Lebanon has plummeted in the wake of repeated political deadlocks in recent years, compounded by the impact of eight years of war in neighboring Syria.
Lebanon's public debt stands at around $86 billion -- higher than 150 percent of GDP -- according to the finance ministry.
Eighty percent of that figure is owed to Lebanon's central bank and local banks.
In July, parliament passed its 2019 budget, which is expected to trim Lebanon's deficit to 7.59 percent of GDP -- a nearly 4-point drop from the previous year.