Sunday 20 October 2019 (UAE)

Internet censorship in Dubai and UAE

Internet and media censorship in Dubai and UAE

A common perception is that Etisalat (and less often Du) decides what internet censorship policy is in the UAE, and which websites or website categories should be banned. In fact, the TRA (Telecom Regulatory Authority) makes those decisions. The ISPs are responsible for actually implementing the restrictions on offending websites, and the perception that Etisalat is more strict about banning websites is likely to be because there are (were) some areas in the Du Telecom network that have (had) no, or less, censorship of the internet, for example Dubai Media Zone and other TECOM areas. The TRA said in 2008 and 2009 that these areas had 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.

The most irritating censorship is likely to be the increasing number of Wikipedia pages that are blocked (not anymore since migration to https://); Skype (banned usually but sometimes unblocked) and other VOIP related websites; websites like www.couchsurfing.org (update: accessible in 2013 but seems to come and go); and some search terms related to feline topics (tell your kids to try cat or kitten if they complain) or gambling. One wonders how Dubai World (a Dubai Government owned company) ever managed to find out enough information to feel confident about investing in the Las Vegas casino sector. 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.

Usually when the UAE authorities block access to a website, a message appears in your browser making it clear why you cannot access the site or page.

For some sites or pages, either a blank page or a Network Error type message appears instead of the "website blocked" message (for example Qatar Airways). No obvious reason found to explain how the UAE authorities or telecom companies decide when to show an error page vs showing an illegal content notification message.

Additionally, some wifi networks have their own filtering policies which also return error pages instead of an explanation.

http vs https protocol and censorship

Occasionally websites which are blocked when accessed using http protocol are available if the http:// at the start of the URL is changed to https:// (and vice versa), and if the website has not set itself up to use only one or the other protocol.

Skype banned and not banned timeline
Safe search enabled in UAE for Google, Bing, etc

Update 2018: Sometime in 2017 Etisalat (and Du) started forcing safe-search to be enabled for all users when doing search with Google (at first only .com and .ae, but later other tld extensions such as google.co.uk, google.fr, etc also). Changing region or "turn safe search off" etc has no effect. The restriction did not affect everyone on the same day, the change seemed to be rolled out over a period of weeks or months. So it's not just your mum and dad who can enable parental controls on your computer, ISPs can request or control this also ... who knew? Bing also has dirty-search disabled for internet users in the UAE. Some other search engines don't have country or region level adult content restrictions set ... yet.

List of TRA Prohibited Content Categories (as of March 2019)

  1. Bypassing blocked content
  2. Pornography, nudity and vice
  3. Impersonation, fraud and phishing
  4. Insult, slander and defamation
  5. Invasion of Privacy
  6. Offences against the UAE and public order
  7. Supporting criminal acts and skills
  8. Drugs
  9. Medical and pharmaceutical practices in violation of the laws
  10. Infringement of intellectual property rights
  11. Discrimination, racism and contempt of religion
  12. Viruses and malicious programs
  13. Promotion of or trading in prohibited commodities and services
  14. Illegal communication services
  15. Gambling
  16. Terrorism
  17. Prohibited Top level Domains
  18. Illegal Activities
  19. Upon order from judicial authorities or in accordance with the law

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports on internet censorship in the UAE

News and updates about internet censorship in the UAE

List of website categories 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.

List of banned websites and apps in the UAE

Avoiding internet censorship in the UAE
Other media censorship in the UAE

[Update]

Censorship in the UAE is generally of subjects related to pornography, gambling, alcohol (or liquor), 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.

FAQs

Update needed on bans

References

Archive

List of TRA website categories to be blocked in the UAE (as of 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.
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