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What is Sarahah and why was it removed from Google Play?

Anonymous messaging app Sarahah has risen to the top of the free app charts as if from nowhere. What's it all about? Find out here.

Published onSeptember 3, 2018

In late 2016, a new social networking service called Sarahah quietly launched. In mid-2017, it became extremely popular after the service launched a mobile app for iOS and Android. It became a huge hit, especially among teenagers, but it also quickly became a major concern for their parents. In early 2018, an online petition by one mother about her concerns about Sarahah reportedly caused both Apple and Google to remove the mobile app from both the iOS App Store and the Google Play Store, although the Sarahah website remains active.

So what is Sarahah, and what made its mobile app launch so controversial? Why did Apple and Google remove the mobile app from their stores in 2018? Read on for the answers.

What is Sarahah?

Sarahah - most controversial apps

Sarahah started out as an anonymous messaging service. It launched in November 2016 as a website created by Saudi Arabian developer Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq. Initially, the idea behind Sarahah was a good one. It was supposed to give workers a way to give honest opinions about their company to their bosses without the threat of being fired. In fact, the name Sarahah means “honesty” in Arabic.

Later, Tawfiq expanded the reach of Sarahah beyond the workplace. He updated the site so people could allow their friends and acquaintances to send anonymous texts, and once again let them send feedback to a person without ruining friendships. Once a user registers, they can give the Sarahah link to their friends or post it publicly online.

The Sarahah website became popular in the first half 0f 2017 in the Middle East and Africa. On June 13, 2017, the service launched its mobile app for iOS and Android in the U.S., as well as other countries.

In July 2017 another social networking app, Snapchat, added a new feature called Paperclip. It allowed users to insert links to Snapchat Stories and snaps. Since Snapchat is highly popular among teenagers in the U.S., they quickly started posting Sarahah links to their Stories. This caused the Sarahah mobile app to became a huge hit (even though the service says it is just for people 17 years of age and over), and later in July 2017, it was among the most popular free apps on the iOS AppStore and the Google Play Store in the U.S.

Why did Sarahah become a concern among parents?

With the sudden rush in Sarahah’s use by teenagers in the U.S. and other markets, concerns about cyberbullying on the service grew among their parents. Sarahah definitely didn’t invent cyberbullying, but the service’s design of sending anonymous messages to friends made it easy for some people to send harassing or racist texts to others, including death threats.

Sarahah’s creator, Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq, claimed at the time the service had AI-based filtering systems to detect offending texts and would have blocked them from being sent to their intended recipients. However, it would appear those filtering features are hit and miss in terms of their effectiveness. One of the many public reports of cyberbullying via Sarahah came in early January 2018 from a 14-year old girl from the U.K. Messages not only harassed the girl but tried to bully her into harming herself or even committing suicide.

In August 2017, Sarahah also had to deal with privacy concerns. The Intercept reported the mobile app collected and uploaded the user’s phone numbers and email addresses from their smartphone’s contacts.  Tawfiq later stated that feature was supposed to be part of a planned “find your friends” addition to Sarahah but added that functionality has now been removed from its servers. The company now claims it does not store any phone numbers or email addresses from its users.

What caused Sarahah to be removed from Google Play and iOS App Store?

The straw that broke the back of Sarahah’s mobile app seems to have been an online petition on the website. It was begun in January 2018 by Katrina Collins, a mother from Australia who said her 13-year-old daughter had received harassing messages via Sarahah. Collins pointed out that both Google Play and App Store have policies banning apps promoting bullying, and wondered why Sarahah was still available to download. She urged people to put pressure on Apple and Google to get Sarahah and other apps like it banned from those download stores.

The petition quickly generated over 400,000 online “signatures.” In late February 2018, the petition worked, as both Apple and Google removed the Sarahah app from its stores (neither Apple nor Google would officially comment on the decision). For his part, Tawfiq told the BBC the decision to shut down the iOS and Android apps was “unfortunate.” He tried to put on a brave face, stating he hoped that the company would come to a “favorable understanding” with Apple and Google. However, the Sarahah app currently is still not available on either storefront.

What is the current status of Sarahah?

While the Sarahah mobile app is no longer available on the Google Play Store or on the iOS App Store, it still works if you downloaded the app before its removal. More importantly, the Sarahah website is still available for people to sign up for and use. You can even have the mobile version of the site set up as a shortcut to your home page. While it doesn’t have the same kind of reach as it did in mid-2017, Sarahah still can be used, potentially by teenagers younger than what the service is supposed to allow.

What is your opinion on Sarahah? Have you used it in the past and had to deal with harassing anonymous texts, or do you feel the move to remove the app version was uncalled for? Let us know in the comments!

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