Update, March 4, 2019 (7:38PM EST): Business Insider (via The Verge) reports that Google has declined a request by U.S. lawmakers to remove the Saudi Arabian government app Absher from the Google Play Store. The outlet reports that, according to a statement sent by Google to U.S. House of Representatives member Jackie Speier (D-California), the app does not violate the terms and conditions needed to post an app on Google Play.
The iOS version of the app is still available to download from Apple’s App Store too. Apple CEO Tim Cook claimed in an interview last week that he was unaware of Absher, but said he would take a look at the app.
“The responses received so far from Apple and Google are deeply unsatisfactory,” Rep. Speier said in a statement. The politician says she “will be following up on this issue” with fellow lawmakers.
Original article, Feb 11, 2019: Apple and Google are under fire for hosting a Saudi Arabian government app that lets men track women and prevent them from leaving the country, reported Business Insider.
Downloaded over one million times, Absher includes innocuous functions like being able to pay a parking fine. However, it’s the app’s travel features that have been the target of activists and human rights groups’ ire.
With the app, men can input a woman’s name and passport number. They can then decide how many trips women can take, how long women can travel for, and whether to cancel a woman’s permission to travel. The app even offers real-time SMS updates that detail when women travel.
Activists call out Absher’s alert system as one of the main reasons why women trying to flee Saudi Arabia are caught. They also claim that Absher facilitates human rights abuses, which go against Apple and Google’s app policies.
In Saudi Arabia, women must follow so-called guardianship laws. Women must gain consent by their male guardians — a father, uncle, husband, brother, or son — to do everything from school enrollment to paid employment.
In statements sent to Business Insider, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and a women’s rights activist called on Apple and Google to reconsider hosting Absher on their respective app stores. They also accused the companies of facilitating misogyny and helping “enforce gender apartheid.”
Apple and Google did not respond to Business Insider‘s requests for comment. Google did not respond to our request for comment at press time.