When the UAE announced recent amendments to a cybercrime bill passed in 2012, many expatriates and others living and working in the region were reasonably concerned. One amendment effectively banned the use of VPNs in the UAE. Many people who rely on a VPN to use Skype, make VoIP calls, or watch television programming from their home country were affected by the new legislation, but few were willing to test the UAE’s resolve in enforcing the ban. Under the new law, using a VPN in the UAE could be punishable with a prison sentence, a fine of Dh500,000 to Dh2 million, or a combination of the two.
Some, however, found the amendment laughable. They reasoned that it would be very difficult to locate someone accessing the Internet with technology that is designed to provide anonymity. How would the country know who was using a VPN or which one they were using? They also had serious doubts that anyone caught would actually be fined such an excessive amount. Others immediately began to look for loopholes that would help them circumvent the legislation.
Technically, the new law states that one cannot use a fraudulent IP address to commit crimes or prevent their discovery. As with all legislation, these terms are very broad and open to interpretation. In this case, some individuals are challenging the UAE’s ban of telecommunication apps like Apple’s FaceTime and other apps like Snapchat which make it possible for users to communicate with family or friends in other countries without depending on the UAE’s telecom services. The UAE essentially regards using these apps and services as a criminal act, so accessing them with a VPN would violate the new law.
At the heart of the ongoing controversy over VPN use in the UAE and many other regions are private or state-owned telecommunications providers. In the UAE, telecommunications are provided by either Etisalat or du. These are the only two providers licensed by the state to offer VoIP services, a method of placing voice calls with an Internet connection. If a company like Apple or Skype wishes to offer VoIP service in the UAE, they must strike a deal with Etisalat or du. To clarify the concept, imagine being in the United States and having to pay a telecommunications provider like AT&T for Skype or FaceTime access. In a sense, using these services on a mobile device does cost money in terms of data usage, but what we are referring to here is general access.
The reason Etisalat and du demand this type of control is that international calling in the UAE is big business. The country is filled with many foreign workers and expatriates who must use the company’s services to call home. International calling can add up to large revenues. The permission of voice calling apps that circumvent the use of Etisalat and du directly affects company revenues.
A recent survey of 53 random individuals in the UAE revealed some interesting results. Of the 53, almost half (23) reported that they used a VPN. Just five of those 23 stated that they used a VPN to make free online calls. 17, however, stated that they used their VPN to access blocked or restricted websites such as dating apps media services like Netflix. Although this quick random survey is not broad enough to provide conclusive data, it does seem to indicate that VoIP use isn’t the real problem for the UAE. Far more VPN users appear to be using their connection for other things.
When it comes to prosecuting someone for streaming media with a VPN, things become very murky. In theory, viewing unlicensed content could be construed as violating international content laws. Netflix, for example, could then pursue action against the end user. Tareq Masarweh, who specialized in telecommunications for Ovum, doesn’t believe that a media company would take such an action, however. In a recent interview, Masarweh said he had never heard of a lawsuit of this kind brought against a user by a media company. Masarweh contended that the number of subscribers is simply too vast to justify going after users individually.
Whatever the UAE’s reason for banning the use of a VPN was, the respondents to the small survey don’t appear to be too concerned. 21 of 53 stated that they would continue using their VPN in the UAE even though it is illegal to do so.