Sunday, July 21, 2024

Microsoft destroyed my online life after I called home to Gaza

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By Mohamed Shalaby and Joe TidyBBC World Service

Getty Images man charging his phone in a charging station in gaza strip Getty Images

The Israeli military campaign has badly affected internet and mobile connectivity in Gaza

Palestinians calling home to Gaza on Skype have had their digital lives destroyed, after Microsoft closed their email accounts without warning.

BBC News has spoken to 20 Palestinians living abroad who say Microsoft, which owns the voice and video chat app, kicked them out of their accounts. The total number affected is thought to be much higher.

In some cases, these email accounts are more than 15 years old and the users have no way to retrieve emails, contacts or memories.

Microsoft says they violated its terms of service – but will not say how – and the decision is final.

The Gazans say they have no links to Hamas – designated as a terrorist organisation by some Western countries, including the US, where Microsoft is headquartered – and accuse the technology giant, the most valuable company in the world, of persecuting them unfairly.

Switched off

Salah Elsadi is living in the US and, like many Palestinians abroad, was using Skype to call his wife, children and parents on their mobile phones in Gaza.

The internet is frequently disrupted or switched off because of the Israeli military campaign – and standard international calls are very expensive.

With a paid Skype subscription, it is possible to call mobiles in Gaza cheaply – and while the internet is down – so it has become a lifeline to many Palestinians.

But in April, Mr Elsadi, like many others, was kicked out of his account – and all services linked to his Microsoft Hotmail account.

Salah Elsadi

Salah Elsadi says he has been locked out of life online

He has missed out on job offers and can no longer access his bank accounts, which are tied to his Hotmail account, he says.

“I’ve had this Hotmail for 15 years,” Mr Elsadi says.

“They banned me for no reason, saying I have violated their terms – what terms? Tell me.

“I’ve filled out about 50 forms and called them many many times.”

Others have complained on social media of similar treatment.

Some fear they are being wrongly accused of being a part of Hamas.

‘Fraudulent activity’

“We are civilians with no political background who just wanted to check on our families,” Eiad Hametto says. He was calling his family from Saudi Arabia.

“They’ve suspended my email account that I’ve had for nearly 20 years.

“It was connected to all my work.

“They killed my life online.”

Microsoft did not respond directly to the accusation these people have been labelled as Hamas – but a spokesperson said it did not block calls or ban users based on calling region or destination.

“Blocking in Skype can occur in response to suspected fraudulent activity,” they said without elaborating. And users could appeal.

Khalid Obaied

Khalid Obaied was using Skype to call home to his wife and child from Belgium

But many of those BBC News has spoken to say they have tried many times and are receiving the same blanket response.

One, Khalid Obaied, has lost faith with Microsoft.

“I don’t trust them anymore,” he says.

“I paid for a package to make phone calls – then, after 10 days, they ban me for no reason.

“They have never provided a reason.

“That means it’s only because I’m a Palestinian calling Gaza.”

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