Despite the fact that the United Arab Emirates are experiencing the highest penetration rate in the Arab world, the authorities have implemented an extensive system to filter sensitive subjects, backed by repressive laws. Netizens are increasingly resorting to proxy servers to access thousands of banned websites.
Promoting Internet access
The United Arab Emirates are playing a technological leadership role in the Arab world, thanks mainly to Dubai Media City and Dubai Internet City – tax-free zones in which major companies in the media and IT sector have set up their operations. In March 2009, the authorities decided to use the country's domain name in Arabic in order to foster the use of the language on the Internet. They plan to invest several billion dollars to expand Internet infrastructures and access, particularly in government agencies and schools.
Over 50% of the Emirates' population are connected to the Internet. An extremely active community of netizens has developed. Bloggers are broaching topics of general interest, but they are often pressured to use self-censorship. Some of them, however, do tackle controversial subjects, only to face the consequences. The owner of the www.majan.net forum and one of his colleagues spent several weeks behind bars in late 2007 for covering a corruption case in the medical community. The public prosecutor dropped the defamation charges in 2008.
Pervasive filtering policy
Although the authorities are in favor of letting their citizens have access to the Net, they insist on "guiding" them in the process. Under the pretext of fighting online pornography, several thousand Internet sites totally unrelated to this subject have vanished from the Web (blocked sites such as http://www.emarati.katib.org/node/52, for example). Taboo subjects include: alternative political views, non-orthodox opinions about Islam, and criticisms of the social situation, especially of the royal family. The economy is still a very sensitive topic. Mujarad Ensan's blog (www.mujarad-ensan.maktooblog.com) was blocked after he mentioned what repercussions the royal economic crisis has had on the Kingdom. Finally, sites that provide content considered "obscene," or censorship circumvention tools, are not accessible either. Censors also target any site denouncing human rights violations in the country. The UAE Torture website (www.uaetorture.com), for example, is blocked.
Authorities have allegedly blocked five hundred keywords. The decision to render websites inaccessible is made by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) in cooperation with the Minister of Communications and Internet Technology, and implemented by the country's two Internet access providers, Etisalat and Du. They use the SmartFilter software program produced by Secure Computing, which was bought out in 2008 by the American firm, McAfee.
Censorship affecting social networks, participating websites and blog platforms is not uniformly applied. Forums are filtered according to the topics discussed by surfers. Only a few pages or posts are made unavailable. The very popular www.uaehewar.net forum was recently blocked in its entirety. YouTube is partially blocked: a campaign launched in 2009 by Dubai's Chief of Police, to block all access to the site, failed.
Currently, the country has several hundred Internet cafés. Yet they are not the primary point of access for the country's citizens, who consult the Web from their homes or workplaces. New rules require that users present an ID card and register their personal data, but they are allegedly not being enforced.
Cell phones are also being filtered. The latest victim is the Blackberry, whose Internet access has been filtered since December 2009. Authorities tried to install spyware on smartphones in July 2009, but users raised such an uproar that they finally abandoned the plan.
Cyber-laws and cyber-police
Since December 2008, UAE cyber-police have been in charge of monitoring the Web and keeping an eye on its users. According to the authorities, they processed over 200 cases in 2009, mainly related to cyber-crime and hacking.
Intensified surveillance has been coupled with liberticidal laws. By virtue of Article 20 of the 2006 law against cyber-criminality (the Computer Crime Act), an Internet user may be imprisoned for "opposing Islam," "insulting any religion recognized by the state," or "violating family values and principles."
Another victim of the censors, the website www.Hetta.com, has been targeted by judicial harassment. Its chief editor, Ahmed Mohammed bin Gharib, was sentenced to a fine of AED 20,000 (about USD 5,400) for "defaming," "insulting," and "humiliating" the Abu Dhabi Media Company, a state-controlled media outlet for publishing an article in May 2009 in which journalists denounced the company's "administrative corruption" and "embezzlement" practices. The appeal hearing upheld this penalty on January 13. Ahmed Mohammed bin Gharib lodged an appeal with the Court of Cassation.
Intensifying cyber censorship and circumvention efforts
Despite the fact that, based upon a poll published by the newspaper Khaleej, 95.5% of the respondents opposed the current filtering system, the latter has been intensifying in the last few months according to the OpenNet Initiative. Dubai Internet City and Dubai Media City, which, until now, had been spared by censorship, are now being filtered despite the promises made to investors. Yet UAE netizens are not easily dissuaded: increasing numbers of them are discovering how to circumvent the censorship and regain Internet access.