It’s no secret that the government keeps a close eye on internet activities within the UAE. The UAE government has been very open about their cyber laws and has stated that certain online activities are prohibited. However, there are some gray areas – namely VPNs.
VPN usage is common in the UAE thanks to online restrictions instituted by government officials. These restrictions keep residents from visiting certain websites thanks to geo-blocking. There is no official list of restricted websites, but popular tools like Skype are known to be blocked. The reasons behind these restrictions are reserved for the UAE government’s discretion. Yet this move has driven plenty of residents and visitors to use VPNs so they can access blocked websites.
That doesn’t mean it’s legal to do so, however. So how does the UAE handle VPN usage and what will happen to those who use VPNs while in the country? Let’s explore this topic below.
Cybersecurity and Blocked Websites in the UAE
Governments can force internet service providers (ISPs) in their country to block certain websites through laws and regulations. When following this order, an ISP will then set up a firewall that examines all outgoing and incoming data packets.
ISPs use these data packets to identify which websites are being connected to and from where. So, let’s say someone from the UAE wants to visit a dating website (which is blocked). All websites on the internet have a known IP. The firewall will see that someone with an IP address from within the UAE is trying to connect to a blocked IP. This connection will then automatically be stopped.
This practice is nothing new to the UAE, which has imposed strict cybersecurity laws for their country. Most of these revolve around Federal Law 5 of 2012 and mainly deal with online criminal activities. This is normal practice for most countries. However, there are a few notable additions that people should be aware of:
- People visiting or residing in the UAE are not allowed to swear at or bully others online.
- People are not allowed to take, post, or share images of people online without their consent, even in public.
- People are not allowed to post or share content that goes against social cohesion. This includes content that is lewd, anti-government, un-Islamic or encourages “sinful” activity.
All of these acts are punishable by jail time or heavy fines.
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How a VPN Circumvents Blocked Websites
A person’s computer or mobile device needs to connect to their internet service provider (ISP) before they can connect to a website.
When someone has a VPN installed (example), their data passes through a VPN server which changes the IP address of the connection. So when a website or ISP looks at the data packets that contain IP location, they won’t block the connection.
Thus, a VPN would unblock any websites restricted by the UAE government since they cannot see which websites are being visited. They can, however, see that a user is sending and receiving data over a VPN because the IP addresses used by VPN services are not hidden.
Are VPNs Legal in the UAE?
The UAE government recently decided to amend its cyber laws to include regulations on VPN usage. This pertains to Federal Law 12 of 2016 amending Federal Law 5 of 2012 on combating cyber crimes.
This law states that anyone who is using a legal VPN service for legal purposes won’t be prosecuted. Though they haven’t established what a “legal” VPN service is. The law strictly states that using a VPN “for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery” will be punishable with both imprisonment and a fine.
Thus, using a VPN in the UAE is legal as long as it’s used for legal online activities.
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The Bottom Line
Almost all countries have laws around cybersecurity and online activities, especially when those activities are illegal. But it’s important to know what these laws do exactly. And whether any special laws are in place that prohibits doing certain stuff online, like using a VPN.
Luckily, VPN usage isn’t entirely illegal in the UAE (for now). Though, it’s probably not a good idea to go around proclaiming the virtues of VPN usage while in the UAE.