Last week, UAE Amir His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan issued a new set of federal laws which include one forbidding UAE citizens from using VPNs to mask their digital footprints.
As reported, anyone caught using a VPN or proxy server could end up cooling their heels in jail and will face a fine of between $136,000 – $545,000.
The regulation stipulates:
“Whoever uses a fraudulent computer network protocol address (IP address) by using a false address or a third-party address by any other means for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery, shall be punished by temporary imprisonment and a fine of no less than Dh500,000 and not exceeding Dh2,000,000, or either of these two penalties.”
There are past laws which have been enforced in the country related to VPNs. However, previous regulations only stipulated prosecution when VPNs were being used for fraudulent reasons or Internet crime.
Virtual private Networks (VPNs) and proxies are ways to reroute your Internet traffic, masking your IP address and also allowing you to access services otherwise blocked locally. While they can be used for criminal purposes, the most common reason is to access geographically locked content and platforms.
According international media it may now be acceptable for law enforcement to go after the average citizen for accessing blocked services and websites — and potentially for using VoIP systems including WhatsApp, FaceTime and SnapChat.
UAE has a ban on such services — offering only two sanctioned platforms, Etislat and du, which are very expensive — but countless citizens and expats use VPNs to circumvent these laws to talk to family and friends. The fresh edict, however, could be devastating for people unable to reconnect with their loved ones in other countries.
In April, an extensive ban on Skype was lifted, and residents who can afford the expensive Etislat and du VoIP services can use Skype in the country. The UAE Telecommunications Regulatory Authority says that the new rules will still permit the use of Skype, but accessing blocked content is punishable.
Blocking VoIP and VPNs for vague security reasons is likely to force people to adopt Etislat and du, both of which are accessible to the state. This, in turn, will bring up costs for the average citizen and is likely to anger the expat community.
By restricting such services, it is also likely that business in the country will suffer, as foreign companies will have a tougher environment in which to operate.