UAE 'VPN ban' creates confusion

Residents in the United Arab Emirates can be forgiven for being confused about whether or not they are liable to a fine of up to US$ 500,000 (£375,000) if caught using a VPN in the country.

Today in the Gulf News, one of the country's main English language papers, Cleofe Maceda reporting from Dubai said: “The legality around the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) has not changed and not all residents in the UAE who use the technology automatically face imprisonment and up to Dh2 million in fines.”  Not all?

Haseeb Haider reporting from Abu Dhabi for the other main English language paper, the Khaleej Times reported today that, “There's no restriction on the legal use of Virtual Private Networks (VPN) in the UAE,” going on to note how, “those who misuse it for crime and fraudulent purposes will be held accountable, the Telecom Regulatory Authority has clarified.”

Concerns were first raised over a new law that was introduced to increase fines for illegal use of VPNs.

The wording of the law prohibits: “using a false IP address or a third-party address by any other means for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery”. Its purpose is a response to concern at proliferation of illegal content such as pornography, as well as reports of concerns that VOIP services such as Skype and Viber are taking traffic from the local phone companies previously used to revenues from expatriates calling home. Using gambling services, accessing obscene materials and watching or listening to television, film and other media content that is not licensed for use in the UAE would all be deemed illegal use of VPN.

Gulf News reports Kellie Blyth, a senior associate at Clyde & Co, suggesting that private individuals, aside from corporate organisations, don't run the risk of going to jail and paying a fine as long as they don't use VPN to commit a crime. The TRA clarified, saying, “there are no regulations which prevent the use of VPN technology by companies, institutions and banks to access their internal networks through Internet. In order to understand the law correctly .... the punishment is exclusively linked to the mentioned fraudulent act and the intent to commit a crime or prevent its discovery.”

But of course the data run over a VPN is encrypted and would need to be revealed to demonstrate it was not being used to commit a crime, thus privacy abandoned to avoid prosecution.

Blogger Aazim Akhtar, reported (unsubstantiated) that it was a Dubai senior police officer who  said VPN use is illegal and (also unsubstantiated) that the director of the cyber-crime division of Dubai Police said that tampering with the internet (VPN) is a crime.  So it also seemed to be different emphasis between different Emirates. 

The authorities are keen to play down this apparent faux pas, with Hamad Obaid Al Mansoori, director general of the TRA issuing a statement saying: "The leadership of the UAE in the field of internet applications and IT in general, is on the contrary to what has been circulated by some media regarding the use of VPNs." 

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