Wyden calls on Apple, Google to remove Saudi app allowing men to limit women's travel

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Bezos phone breach raises fears over Saudi hacking | Amazon seeks to halt Microsoft's work on 'war cloud' | Lawmakers unveil surveillance reform bill Bezos phone breach escalates fears over Saudi hacking Top intel office fails to meet deadline to give Khashoggi report to Congress: report MORE (D-Ore.) is calling on tech giants Apple and Google to remove a Saudi government app that allows men to put limits on women's travel. 

Wyden, an outspoken critic of big tech who frequently aligns with human rights groups, said Monday in a letter addressed to Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Apple CEO Tim Cook. 


"I write to ask that you immediately remove from your app stores the Saudi government’s Absher app, which enables Saudi men to track and control the movements of Saudi women," Wyden wrote.  

Business Insider last week published a report about the Saudi government's Absher app, which includes a feature that allows male guardians to prevent their female dependents from traveling abroad. 

All women in Saudi Arabia are required to have a male guardian under current laws. Guardians are tasked with permitting their female dependents to travel abroad, obtain a passport, get married and other basic activities. 

Using the Absher app, male guardians can set limits on when women are allowed to travel abroad, where they are allowed to go and whether they can leave the country at all. 

Both Google Play and Apple's App Store host Absher. The companies did not respond to The Hill's requests for comment.

"With Absher ... you will be able to perform many services for individuals in [the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] whether they are citizens or residents," the Absher app description reads on the Apple store. "Absher has been designed and developed with special consideration to security and privacy of user's data and communication."

Human rights groups have called on the tech behemoths to take down the app following Business Insider's reporting, saying that Google and Apple are facilitating discrimination against women by providing a platform for the app.

"Apps like this can facilitate human rights abuses, including discrimination against women," Rothna Begum, a senior women's rights researcher with Human Rights Watch, told The Hill. She added that Apple and Google should be "evaluating" whether apps should be allowed to enable these kinds of limitations.

Apple and Google have rules against apps that facilitate harassment, but the Absher app remains available more than a week after the report. 

Begum said she believes the tech companies should ask the Saudi government to remove the travel restrictions feature from the app rather than taking it down altogether.

She said she believes there should be "extra scrutiny when it comes to government-operated apps because as we know, they could end up facilitating all sorts of abuses as well." 

"It is hardly news that the Saudi monarchy seeks to restrict and repress Saudi women, but American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy," Wyden said in the letter.

"By permitting the app in your respective stores, your companies are making it easier for Saudi men to control their family members from the convenience of their smartphones and restrict their movement." 

"This flies in the face of the type of society you both claim to support and defend," he added.

Apple and Google have been facing a growing wave of calls to take more responsibility for the apps posted to their stores amid escalating scrutiny of tech companies overall. 

Apple, in recent weeks, removed an app from its online store following claims that it promoted homophobic views.

"While we would like to see tech companies ensure that they’re not facilitating discrimination against women and human rights abuses ... likewise we’d want to see governments around the world calling out Saudi Arabia for discrimination and the male guardianship system that remains largely intact," Begum told The Hill.