A technological leader
The United Arab Emirates is a technological leader in the Arab world, thanks primarily to Dubai Media City and Dubai Internet City, free economic zones where key IT and media sector companies have set up offices. In March 2009, the authorities decided to display the UAE’s domain name in Arabic in order to expand the use of this language on the Internet. They plan to invest several billion dollars into developing Internet infrastructures and access, particularly in government offices and schools. A very large portion of the UAE’s population (75 %) has Internet access.
A targeted and up-to-date filtering system
A very strict filtering system targets any pornographic content. Websites discussing topics such as dissenting political opinions, or non-orthodox views of Islam, or criticisms of society – particularly the royal family – or of religion or human rights, are also rendered inacessible. The sites localnewsuae.com, arabtimes.com, uaepriosn.com, uaetorture.com and uaehewar.net, not to mention the Facebook page and Twitter group of the latter, are regularly blocked or banned. The economy is another highly sensitive subject: Mujarad Ensan’s blog was blocked after it referred to the repercussions of the economic crisis on the Kingdom. Sites providing access to content deemed “obscene,” or to censorship circumvention tools, are no longer accessible.
The now-blocked UAEhewar website offered the only forum which allowed the Emiratis to freely discuss subjects considered taboo in their country, and notably to post comments critical of their leaders. It also formerly published interviews of prominent opposition figures such as Dr. Christopher Davidson, who has written several books on Dubai, activist Mohammed Al Mansoori and political science professor Dr. Ebtisam Al Ketib. The authorities therefore decided that the website had gone too far.
Although websites such as Flickr, myspace.com and ahewar.org are still accessible, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are paritally censored by the regime. Facebook has 1.2 million users in the UAE. The forums are filtered according to what news and topics are broached by the netizens.
Authorities are said to have blocked five hundred key words. Decisions to block websites are made jointly by the Telecommunication Regulation Authority (TRA) and the Ministry of Communications, and enforced by the country’s two Internet service providers, Etisalat and Du. The latter use SmartFilter, a software program produced by Secure Computing, which the American firm McAfee acquired in 2008.
Extending surveillance to mobile telephones
Mobile telephones are also being filtered. The latest victim is the BlackBerry, whose Internet access has been filtered since December 2009. In July 2009, the authorities made an unsuccessful attempt to install spyware on these smartphones . They made another attempt in 2010. In the Emirates, some 500,000 people are now using BlackBerrys and their popularity is constantly growing. Their potential for mobilising dissatisfied citizens worries the regime, which, in 2010, took some dissuasive steps to crack down on BlackBerry users.
Badr Ali Saiwad Al Dhohori, an 18-year-old youth residing in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, was arrested on 15 July 2010 for allegedly using his BlackBerry to try to organise a protest against a gasoline price increase . Although he was released on 28 August 2010, Badr Ali Saiwad Al Dhohori had lost his job.
Pressures on users have been coupled with those exerted on the BlackBerry’s Canadian manufacturer, Research In Motion (RIM). The Emirates had given RIM an ultimatum to comply by 11 October 2010, under threat of cuttingoff certain BlackBerry services, such as instant messaging, which the regime deemed “non-compliant with official and social norms,” citing the pretext of “national security” . A great deal of conflicting information has been circulating as to the substance of the negotiations due to a lack of transparency on the part of both parties. Yet, according to information received by Reporters Without Borders, the Emirati authorities and RIM have allegedly reached an agreement on access to the smartphones’ encrypted data. The Emirati government has stated that BlackBerrys are now in compliance with the law, without specifying the scope of the concessions which RIM may have had to make.
The U.S. company Apple also had to accept certain government stipulations and was notably obliged to sell the Iphone 4 to the Emirates without its flagship “FaceTime” application, which allows users to enjoy live video chats.
Cyberpolice have been monitoring the Web since December 2008 to keep a close watch on netizens. It processed over 200 cases in 2009, most of them linked to cybercrime and hacking, according to the authorities.
Although the country now has several hundred cybercafés, they are not the populations’ main access point, since Internet users surf the Web in their homes and workplaces. Some new rules – apparently not enforced – require that users show an ID and record their personal data.
In addition to the intensifying surveillance, a new freedom-restricting legal arsenal is now being implemented. According to certain articles of the 2006 law on cybercrime, an Internet user can be imprisoned for “opposing Islam,” “insulting any religion recognised by the state” or “contravening family values and principles.”
Despite the fact that, according to a survey published by the newspaper Khaleej Times, 95.5% of respondents are opposed to the present filtering system, it has been made even more restrictive. Dubai Internet City and Dubai Media City, which had been spared to date, are now targets of the filtering, despite promises made to investors.
Netizens demonstrate increasing activism
A highly committed netizen community has emerged. Bloggers tackle public interest concerns, though they often feel compelled to practice self-censorship. Not all netizens have given up: an ever-greater number of them know how to bypass censors and express their views. Some discuss highly sensitive subjects and are willing to bear the consequences.
On 13 January 2010, the Abu Dhabi Court of Appeals upheld the fine of 20,000 dirhams (3,755 euros) and damages of 10,000 dirhams (1,877 euros) that a lower court had imposed on Ahmed Bin Gharib, editor of the news website Hetta.com in a defamation suit brought by the Abu Dhabi Media Company over comments posted by netizens in response to an article about the company published on the website. The latter found the comments defamatory and offensive. The court also ordered that the site be closed for one month.
Thanks to online forums, social networks and even BlackBerrys – not to mention the popular BlackBerry Messenger – netizens have been able to share opinions on controversial topics banned in the traditional media, such as human rights, the harassment and jailing of activists, freedom of expression, political reforms, corruption and even WikiLeaks.
Certain online campaigns like those launched by UAZHewar.net and lawyer Abdul Hameed Al Kumaiti have led to mass mobilisation on such matters as torture, BlackBerrys and corruption. Abdul Hameed Al Kumaiti is notably defending freelance journalist Mark Townsend, based in Dubai. He was charged with defamation on the basis of a loose association of his name with the alleged cyber handle of the author. Despite his firm denial he has appeared in the criminal court eight times since September 2010 and faces serious penalties.
Despite the censorship, the website uaetorture.com had managed to post a nearly one-hour-long video of Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan – brother of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Abu Dhabi's ruler and President of the United Arab Emirates – torturing a young Afghani, Mohammed Shah Poor. This video was massively circulated online, causing a huge public outcry.
In 2010, the new media managed to spearhead and host debates on core issues within the UAE’s society. Despite the authorities’ repressive response, those discussions were able to take place both online and offline.