There’s a thin line that separates the so-called enemies of the internet from ‘internet free’ countries, and surprisingly many of them balance on both sides of that line, like the United Arab Emirates, for instance. VPNs are illegal in Dubai and other emirates, but the law is ambiguous on this since there’s no restrictions against using one so long as customers do not use a VPN for any wrongdoing, which in this case means accessing websites and services that are blocked in the region. However, many people use VPNs in Dubai, regardless of these specific prohibitions.
This question of legality seems to come and go whenever a new service is blocked in the emirates, but some users now fear that VPNs will be blocked soon, however. Etisalat is one of only two ISPs in the UAE and it has recently started throttling connections, ruining the experience of those that do use VPNs for Skype and other purposes, while customers with the other ISP – du – didn’t notice any negative effects. Could this be an omen for the future of VPNs in Dubai?
What the Law Says
Skype was blocked in UAE in December 2017 for “providing an unlicensed VoIP service”. Naturally, people then turned to VPNs in order to unblock it again and, shortly after, a message was spread across social media that warned users of heavy monetary fines for anyone that had used a VPN without specifying any use-related behavior. To the relief of many, this quickly proved to be false when it was addressed by the authorities, leaving even more people confused as to whether VPNs are in fact legal or illegal.
It’s surprising to say but, despite Dubai’s internet restrictions, the websites that are usually blocked in restrictive countries are surprisingly open in Dubai. Among the most common of these are YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, though admittedly the content that is available on these social media channels is still heavily monitored and censored by the authorities. However, some services are still fully blocked, which is the case of Skype and other messaging apps like WhatsApp or Telegram. Using a VPN to access these is strictly prohibited by law, meaning that all those who do so are taking part in a crime, as are those who access blocked domains or publish content on social media that could threaten the public order or disrespect the country’s religion.
Curiously, there’s nothing that forbids the use of VPNs for improving the overall network experience, though. If used for privacy purposes or just to enhance the speed of a connection, it’s perfectly fine and within the legal law of the country.
Throttling Connections Aiming at VPNs
When people use too much bandwidth it’s often common for ISPs to start throttling their connection, reducing it so it is unbearably slow in an effort to dissuade the user from torrenting, streaming or whatever they might be doing. This is what’s happening in Dubai at the moment. There are only two ISPs in the emirate – du and Etisalat – and the latter is being accused by its customers of throttling connections, something that du customers don’t seem to have any complaints about. In fact, du doesn’t seem to have applied such restrictions, as users report that Skype calls while using VPNs such as ZenMate have not had any problems with lag and work fine, which is not the case for those using Etisalat.
This could be an indicator that VPNs may soon become a target in Dubai, too, which in turn will mean the country will remain at the bottom of the list of internet free countries’ for years to come.
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