Here’s why the United Arab Emirates outlawed VPNs

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) banned the use of virtual private networks last month. A royal edict from the UAE president makes it illegal for anyone in the country to use a VPN or proxy service.

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United Arab Emirates

The wording of the law is ambiguous and reflects a technologically illiterate society. It seems that you can’t use any system that hides the fact that you’re committing a crime or covering a crime up. The country sees VPN/proxy usage as an evasion of the law.

Although using a VPN doesn’t mean you’re doing anything illegal, you can’t prove that you weren’t doing anything illegal either. VPNs encrypt your network traffic, so incidentally, you have difficulty in proving your innocence. The law now says:

“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 Dhs 500,000 [US$136,000] and not exceeding Dhs 2,000,000 [US$544,500] of either of these two penalties.”

The Aftermath

It’s ironic given that less than 20% of the inhabitants of UAE are locals. Various expatriates make up the rest of the population. Many of this greater group want access to their private corporate networks and the rest of the internet. The internet filters that the local government put in place could hamper business interests. Activists and protesters often make use of VPNs and proxies to protect their online activities from oppressive regimes.

Telecommunications companies of the UAE block anything seen as against UAE values. This includes Israeli domains, pornography sites, and many VoIP services, which expatriates use to call home. Two state-sanctioned VoIP services – Etisalat and Du – are available but expensive. The UAE banned Skype at first. After Microsoft and other business complained, the country lifted the ban.

The country also started cracking down on internet piracy. Last month, police caught a man in Abu Dhabi. He stole and uploaded TV series and movies from TV platform OSN.  The government sentenced him to six months in jail and a fine of Dhs 50,000. Once out of prison, the country will deport him.

The International Data Corporation estimates that television piracy causes over $750 million in losses. Various content industries in the Middle East and Africa suffer as a result.