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Internet censorship in Dubai and UAE  

Wednesday 23 July 2014 (UAE)   
 
   
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Internet censorship in Dubai and UAE

The TRA (Telecom Regulatory Authority) decides what internet censorship policy is in the UAE, not the telecom companies Etisalat and Du, although many residents will feel that Etisalat in particular is the decider of what is and is not allowed. This perception is possibly because there are some areas in the Du Telecom network that have no, or less, censorship of the internet, for example Dubai Media Zone and the TECOM area. The TRA has said in 2008 and 2009 that these areas will have to come under the UAE censorship policy though.

For the most part, internet censorship is not overly draconian in the UAE. Certainly, much less so than somewhere like China or Iran for example. It would be rare that any news is censored, even news critical of the UAE. The filtering policy concentrates more on pornography, dating, gambling, and other culturally or religiously offensive internet content. For many families, the blocking of porn might be seen as a plus when considering a move to Dubai. And those who desperately want to access the blocked websites usually find a way eventually (using a VPN is one way to access blocked websites from what we've heard).

The most irritating censorship is likely to be the increasing number of Wikipedia pages that are blocked; Skype (update: Skype is accessible in the UAE from 2013) and other VOIP websites; websites like www.couchsurfing.org (update: accessible in 20130 but seems to come and go); and some search terms. Children looking for feline related material might wonder what they've done wrong when entering one particular synonym for a cat or kitten for example. Or anyone wanting to do some research into gambling or casinos will find their web searches return no results. One wonders how Dubai World (a Dubai Government owned company) ever managed to find out enough information to feel confident about investing in Las Vegas. Then again, had they been able to search more freely on the internet in the UAE, perhaps they wouldn't have lost quite so much money on their gamble ... er ... investment with MGM, the casino operator.

Most of the time a message will appear when a website is blocked, that makes it clear the UAE authorities have blocked the site. Occasionally though, either a blank page, or Network Error type message will appear, leaving viewers confused as to whether a site has been blocked, or there really is a problem with the website. It's not clear why the UAE telecom companies and/or telecom authorities are reluctant to let customers know about internet filtering for some sites.

List of TRA website categories to be blocked in the UAE (information supplied by the TRA - last update April 2012)
  1. Internet Content that contradicts with the ethics and morals of the UAE including Nudity and Dating.
  2. Internet Content that contains material which expresses hate to religions.
  3. Internet Content that is not inline with UAE Laws.
  4. Internet Content that allow or assist users to access Blocked Content.
  5. Internet Content that directly or indirectly constitute a risk on UAE internet users such as Phishing websites, Hacking tools & Spywares.
  6. Internet Content that is relevant to gambling.
  7. Internet Content that provide information on purchasing, manufacturing, promoting and using illegal drugs.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports on internet censorship in the UAE
  • 2010 HRW report on UAE (released 26 January 2011) noted that websites that were blocked in 2010 included www.localnewsuae.com, www.uaehewar.net (UAE Hewar) with its discussion forums (topics include freedom of expression and politics) along with its Facebook and Twitter pages.
  • "The UAE should take a long, hard look at what happens to governments that suppress the rights of its citizens to speak out or that think they can control the information people share. Tunisians are not the only ones in the Arab world who will insist that no government has the right to trample their rights." - strong comments from Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a 26 January 2011 press release. As it happened, Tunisia was not the only Middle East country whose citizens had something to say - Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Yemen all had varying degrees of unrest in February 2011 with Libya in particular descending into what looked like civil war to many observers.
News and updates about internet censorship in the UAE
  • 07 June 2012 (Emirates 24-7) - Major General Khamis Matar Al Mazinah, deputy police commander in Dubai, was reported as saying "Twitter and Facebook are not under out [sic - our?] control or censorship because we respect the privacy of people…we do not want to track their secrets and life details ... Dubai police are only involved in a process of follow up just in case a user commits an offence on his page such as insulting others…in this case, the user will be identified and prosecuted according to the law."
Websites blocked and unblocked in the UAE

General categories (a Gulf News report 28 December 2009 said The TRA list of banned websites include those on gambling, pornography, illegal drugs, voice over internet protocol (VoIP), and those that offer training or information on terrorist-related activities).

Etisalat seems to be more stringent than Du at blocking websites, so if you desperately want to access a website that's blocked when connected via Etisalat, one way is to use a Du connection - visit a friend or coffee shop in a free zone in Dubai for example (Du is often the ISP in Dubai free zones), or try using a Du hotspot.

  • Dating websites are blocked, although matrimonial websites seem to be acceptable. Given the apparent acceptance of western dating culture in the UAE, the blocking of such websites seems at odds with the image of tolerance that the UAE is attempting to portray.
  • Gambling websites - anything to do with online gambling and casinos (including trying to search in Google and other search engines with words like gambling, casino). One of the ironies of Dubai is that searching for information about Dubai World's (a Dubai government owned company) tie-up with MGM (a US casino operator) is difficult as a result of the censorship.
  • Networking sites - some are considered to be "dating" sites by the TRA and blocked for that reason, for example - FaceBook (not blocked), Flickr (unblocked), Friendster (not blocked), Hi5 (not blocked), MySpace (not blocked), Orkut, StumbleUpon (not blocked).
  • Pornographic websites and pages. This includes online sites for magazines such as FHM, Maxim, etc even though the magazines themselves are available in the UAE (with some parts of photographs blacked out).
  • VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) - cheap phonecalls. See Skype below for more information.
    • 25 Dec 2010 - Gulf News quoted Rouzbeh Pasha, Skype's Head of Middle East and Africa, as saying "Skype is not in discussions with the UAE's TRA," as a follow up to a March 2009 report that the TRA had said "they [VoIP companies such as Skype] can always approach and collaborate with the licensees to legally provide their services." (Etisalat and Du are the Licensees in the UAE).
    • 08 Sep 2010 (Gulf News) - 3 men were arrested for offering cheap international phone calls using VOIP services in Dubai. Major Salah Bu Aseeba, Director of the Department of Economic Crimes at Dubai Police was reported as saying "These types of crimes are very serious, and according to the tip-off the department organised a team to investigate the case,"
    • 03 May 2009 - Gulf News reported comments made by Adnan Al Bahar, manager of public relations for the TRA, in reference to the legalisation of VOIP services, who was quoted saying "We are working to regulate it. Currently, we are working on a regulatory framework. It's not finalised yet. It's just taking time because it's not easy to do. ... When VoIP does become legal, only licensed telecom operators will be allowed to provide the service."
    • 31 Aug 2006 - Gulf News reported that Skype and other VOIP access (which had been available) was being blocked in Dubai free zones (where Du is the telecom provider), but and email from Du reportedly said "We would like to update you that we have not done any changes in our network to block Skype and/or other internet-based voice applications. We are further investigating this issue with our upstream internet service providers and we will keep you updated on the progress." The report also quoted a Dubai Internet City representative as saying "etisalat is blocking the ports for VoIP, and we got infected. We are negotiating with them to open up access to VoIP again." But Mohammad Najuib, acting manager of corporate communications at etisalat, was quoted as saying "Until now VoIP has not been licensed in the UAE. This issue should be addressed to the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA)."
    • 20 Oct 2005 - Gulf News quoted a statement from Etisalat which said "The Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA) of the UAE has stated that all use of voice over internet protocol telephony in the UAE is illegal. The TRA has instructed Etisalat to block all access to VoIP telephony."
    • 04 May 2005 - Gulf News quoted Ahmad Bin Ali, Etisalat's head of public relations at Etisalat, as saying (confusingly) "Internet telephony up until now is illegal to use in the UAE. Etisalat can't make these laws. There's no law." So is there a law or isn't there? VOIP sites were reportedly blocked sometime in April 2005. More confusingly, Abdullah Hashim, Senior Manager of Etisalat's e-Company, was quoted as saying "We are exploring the use of VoIP, but at the moment, PC-to-phone calls are not allowed because we could run into problems with the telecommunication companies in other countries." Um, what problems with other countries?
    • 24 Oct 2004 - Gulf News reported that When the New Year comes, residents here may start making international phone calls via the internet without the fear of being penalised, industry officials said. But it wasn't clear exactly what industry officials had said to prompt that report.
  • VPN (Virtual Private Network) - it's possible to use a VPN service in the UAE, but VPN websites are often blocked, often (it seems) when people post links to them in online forums.
  • Websites and pages deemed to be offensive to the UAE religion and/or culture. This might include websites not only critical of Islam, but of other religions also. However, non-critical websites of religions other than Islam are usually ok.
  • Websites critical of the UAE - pages are not routinely blocked, especially from news sources. For example in December 2009, when Dubai was criticised internationally for not being up front about its debt problems after Dubai World announced they wanted an extension to some loan repayments, The Sunday Times print edition was banned in Dubai due to a report showing a montage with an image of Sheikh Mohammed apparently drowning in a sea of debt, but the same article was still available online.
  • Websites with Israeli domains (ending in .il) were blocked until sometime in 2009, when the restriction seems to have been lifted.

Particular websites

  • www.archive.org - an archive of the internet where you can find old versions of websites. An excellent resource, and thankfully unblocked in 2009 (except for archived pages of blocked websites).
  • www.couchsurfing.org (and www.couchsurfing.com) - blocked again in January 2012 by Etisalat (update April 2012 - unblocked by Etisalat ... for how long, who knows ... enjoy it while it lasts) but still available on Du connections (for example in some of the free zones in Dubai). Was previously blocked in 2008 by Etisalat (but not by Du?). Unknown why. Couch Surfing is a website where people can communicate with other couchsurfers to arrange free hosting when visiting a country, or just meeting up for coffee. CS groups in various cities (including Dubai) and countries actively promote social activities and positive impressions of a country. A great idea which has become very successful and popular in most countries so it doesn't seem to make any sense why the UAE appears to want to discourage this, especially given that Dubai and the UAE are actively promoting the tourist industry.
  • FaceBook (www.facebook.com) - was blocked in 2007 for a period of time?
  • Flickr (www.flickr.com) - blocked since 2005, although many other image hosting websites are not blocked. Update 27 September 2010: Flikr available on both Du and Etisalat internet connections after the TRA said it could be unblocked, although Flicker Groups are still blocked (but that might change also).
  • www.localnewsuae.com - blocked in November 2010? Unclear why. Presumably commentary or blog posts that went over the tolerance line of criticism of the UAE.
  • www.mafiwasta.com - a website about labourers and workers in the UAE, and the harsh treatment meted out to them. Blocking seems to be off and on, and like uaeprison.com, it's not clear what the point is of blocking it in the UAE when those who reside outside the UAE are not affected by the censorship.
  • Middlesex University (UK) - website blocked in the late 1990s due to the inclusion of the word "sex". No longer blocked, and there's even a Middlesex Dubai branch now.
  • Orkut - which frustrates members, but Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, etc are not blocked.
  • secretdubai.blogspot.com - everyone's favorite blog, either because they love it, or love to hate it. The blog was blocked, then unblocked after public protest, then blocked again a few years later. Which in the end is probably what the author wanted - her (apparently) blog posts became more and more vitriolic about Dubai to the extent that it sounded like a personal rant rather than an objective critique.
  • single-in-dubai.blogspot.com - way funnier, more entertaining, and more informative than Secret Dubai. All about the dating scene from the perspective of two clever and eloquent females. No pictures, and hard to figure out a reason why they might have been blocked. Perhaps one of the girls didn't put out on a date with someone with enough wasta to shut them down.
  • Skype (www.skype.com) - the internet VOIP telephone service, ostensibly for reasons of security (it's dangerous for internet users) or whatever other excuse the TRA can come up with. Most residents believe it is blocked simply to protect the revenues for the telecom operators generated from international phone calls. Many have also discovered it's not so hard to use Skype if they really want to. Curiously, the TRA points out that using VOIP is illegal in the UAE, however, Etisalat (and perhaps Du) plan to launch their own VOIP services one day. How they get around the illegality of offering that service remains to be seen.
    • Sometime in 2013 - Skype website and access was unblocked in the UAE.
    • 20 April 2012 - media reports quoted Mohamed Al Ghanim, Director General of Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (TRA), as saying "It is purely a licensing matter. I hope they come to TRA for licence," referring to Skype and/or other VOIP providers. The TRA website says "Currently only Licensees may provide VoIP Services in the UAE" and "The TRA does not block VoIP traffic or protocols. However, as per the VoIP Policy ver. 2.0, the Licensees have the right to block illegal VoIP traffic" (as of April 2012, Etisalat and Du are Licensees in the UAE).
    • 18 October 2009 - Bloomberg reported that Mohamed al-Ghanim, Director General of the TRA, said "I'm in discussions with the mobile operators regarding the introduction of VoIP," and that the TRA would "upgrade our VoIP policy soon," referring to licensing issues as the reason for the ban on Skype and other VOIP providers.
  • www.uaehewar.net - blocked in February 2010 according to the Human Rights Watch UAE report 2011. HRW said The popular website encouraged debate on topics ranging from freedom of expression to political rights.
  • www.uaeprison.com - a website critical of the UAE prison system. The irony is that most residents in the UAE have a good idea of how unpleasant the jails are, and blocking the website won't alter that perception, but anyone outside the UAE is not affected by the internal block, and so they will still be able to read about UAE jails despite the block.
  • www.uaeuniversitywatch.net - a rather ascerbic and infantile website with information about universities and colleges in the UAE, mostly focused on the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) and UAE University, and mostly negative comments and articles, in particular naming names of senior personnel at those institutes and criticising them in a manner that comes across as sour grapes rather than being very objective. Block appears to have started in early 2012. But as is typical of critical websites being blocked in the UAE, most teachers and lecturers in the UAE are well aware of the criticisms so the block doesn't really affect them, and since the block doesn't work outside the UAE, new teachers and instructors will continue to be able to visit the website and wonder how much truth it contains if the UAE is so afraid of it they feel it is necessary to block it.
  • Wikipedia pages on: the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) (possibly because the page includes images of the Prophet), the Danish Cartoon Controversy, random pages related to sex (both as a biological function, and a human desire) and body parts.
  • YouTube (www.youtube.com) - was blocked in 2007 for a period of time?
Avoiding internet censorship in the UAE
  • Generally, websites and forums that give instructions on how to get around blocked websites in the UAE end up being blocked, so we're not going to give specific instructions, but we've heard that it's not so difficult.
  • A website called Google is quite helpful when searching for information. And if the UAE decides to block it, try Yahoo or Bing - they perform similar functions.
Other media censorship in the UAE

[Update]

Censorship in the UAE is generally of subjects related to pornography, gambling, alcohol (words like "hops" or "grape beverages" are used instead of "beer" or "wine" in publications produced in the UAE), material which is offensive to Islam, material which is offensive to other religions, material which is critical of the UAE government and/or ruling families, and material which is critical of the UAE. The last item seems to cause the most difficulty for UAE based media publications, which generally err on the side of caution when it comes to criticism of the UAE. For example during the financial crisis and property crash in Dubai, it was much easier to obtain objective information from foreign published newspapers as it was difficult for UAE based media to write about those events without sounding negative.

  • 26 Jun 2014 - a report from the US State Department Office of Inspection General (OIG) about the US consulate in Dubai and embassy in Abu Dhabi, contained the following observation about the Middle Eastern Broadcasting Network (MBN) office in Dubai:
    • Operating in the UAE comes with restrictions that have caused difficulties for MBN on more than one occasion. After MBN-Dubai reported a local story that reflected negatively on the UAE, UAE Government officials withheld MBN’s shooting permit for a month and conducted a strict assessment of satellite dishes on the roof of the building where the production center is located. On another occasion, the UAE National Media Council summoned the embassy press officer in Abu Dhabi to complain that MBN had violated media rules because of a critical local report.
    • OIG report available at http://oig.state.gov/documents/organization/227278.pdf.
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