Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has passed new federal laws covering IT crimes, among which is the mere use of a VPN (Virtual Private Network). This means that if you are using a VPN to access blocked sites in the UAE to secure web traffic from prying eyes, it could land you in jail. The fines can be as little as $136,000 and as high as $545,000 and even prison is an option.
The UAE previously had a law covering the use of VPNs as part of an internet crime, but the UK-based VPN and privacy advocate Private Internet Access said that this change is enabled to go after anyone and everyone who uses VPNs to access blocked services, which is basically the fraudulent use of an IP address.
VPNs give users the option to connect to private networks all over the world and hide their exact locations using proxy servers and connections. These services make it very easy for those users to circumvent filters put in place by governments and ISPs in regards to their physical location. Currently, a majority of the population in UAE is using this VPN service to mainly access popular applications or services that are inaccessible from the Gulf countries. These services include WhatsApp, Snapchat, etc. These mainly include communications based apps that use Voice over IP (VoIP) technology. VPNs are also often used in combination with the Tor anonymity network to access websites hidden on the Dark Web etc.
VoIP “over-the-top” apps have long been a problem for telecoms operators worldwide, since users can just use this service to speak to their loved ones and avoid paying international calling rates etc. They can just speak to them on Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Viber or Snapchat. However, the law makes UAE the very first government in the world to regulate on behalf of these companies and to curb the use of these VoIP apps in order to bring business back to the local telecomm companies.
Etisalat and du are the only two companies in the world that have been granted licences by the UAE government to offer commercial VoIP services, which can be expensive. The move will stop citizens from selecting what services they wish to use. Instead of enabling citizens and residents to have choice about what services they want to use, the government is helping UAE’s telecom providers in upholding a monopoly on voice calls made in the country.
According to other reports, the UAE government was also planning to block services like WhatsApp, Snapchat, Skype, etc. or at least their calling feature in the country, which has been criticised by the experts. However, UAE’s telecom regulator stands by the Etisalat and du, and has said that these apps should be banned mainly due to security concerns.