A few years ago, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) seriously clamped down
on the internet, with new regulations designed to silence criticism on the internet. There have also been efforts there to ban
the use of BlackBerries and other devices that offer encryption. So, perhaps it's of little surprise that the UAE has expanded a law that had originally been designed to block VoIP usage, to ban any use of a VPN or proxy
that changes your IP address, and makes it all a crime
that can get you jail time:
Article 1 provides for replacing the text of Article 9 of Federal Law No. 9/2012 as follows:
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 Dh500,000 and not exceeding Dh2,000,000, or either of these two penalties.
Now, you could argue that there's a condition here: that the use needs to be "for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery," but, again, remember that lots of things are a crime in the UAE, including using a VoIP provider. As the folks at Private Internet Access explain, this is a pretty big expansion
of the law:
Previously, the understanding of UAE internet law was that VPN or proxy use would be prosecuted under the Telecom Law only if it was used in connection to another crime – this is now going to be set law with a set fee and mandatory jail time. Now, with President Khalifa’s newest proclaimed laws, it is OK for the UAE police to go after individual VPN users for any criminal infraction. Currently, such crimes include accessing blocked services or websites, which can only be done with a VPN or proxy, use that the UAE considers fraudulent use of an IP address. That means watching pornography (a worry for tourists) and calling home on unlicensed VoIP services (a worry for most UAE residents) such as WhatsApp, FaceTime, or SnapChat. Internet users in the UAE, especially the large masses of immigrant labor, use VPN services to get past this geographical VoIP ban to talk to relatives and friends back home.
The PIA article does point out that there is an "approved" VPN from the two state approved telcos, Etisiat and du, but that it blocks lots of services itself and is prohibitively expensive. And while the natural assumption about any attempt to ban VPNs is that it's for surveillance purposes, that may just be a side benefit here. The key focus does appear to be very much about blocking access to VoIP services
to prop up the two official telcos. In other countries, the concern about net neutrality was always that telcos would do things like block VoIP. In the UAE, the government goes so far as to not just support such blocking, but actively work to criminalize the use of a VPN to get around such blocks.