In Depth: Cryptic Cybercrime Laws of the Emirates - Do not assume compliance… Threats? Lustful Tex
Federal Decree-Law no. (5) of 2012 on Combating Cybercrimes has been in force since 2015. Buried amongst the provisions for countering hacking, acts of terrorism and other serious crimes are provisions that affect the daily lives of everyone in the UAE and anyone who plans to visit the UAE, even for a stopover.
Article 1 provides that electronic information means “information that may be stored, processed, generated and transmitted through information technology...”. This means that the Cybercrime Laws are applicable even in the event that electronic information is stored on a local computer or device. Such data could include by definition, anything at all. The laws are extra territorial in certain sections and so it does not matter from what country, these laws were breached.
The following information has been compiled to help people understand just how easy it is to breach these laws.
Article 9 - Virtual Private Network (VPN)
It is illegal to use a VPN for the “purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery”.
Issues: VPN`s allow users to portray that they are surfing the internet from another country and users are then able to access content that may be country restricted. However, they are also imperative for privacy and prevent other internet users from being able to track their location (right down to 100 feet). In using a VPN, it will not be apparent what sites have been blocked by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA). Accessing a site that is blocked by the TRA could be considered a crime. Unfortunately, the TRA has been overly zealous with their blocking ambitions, blocking legitimate information sites, wikipedia sites, even children’s websites that used language that the TRA’s automated system picked up as potentially harmful.
Residents are frustrated with the TRA’s banning policies and feel that their access to genuine information is being tampered with.
Further, VPN's are not permitted if using one breaches the agreement that a customer has with their ISP.
Punishment: Imprisonment (undefined) and a fine of between AED 150,000 - 500,000
Article 16 - Extortion & Threats
It is illegal to “extort or threaten another person to force him to engage in or prevent him from engaging in a certain act”.
Issues: It sounds fair enough but it is very easy to have a heated argument with someone who owes you money or has wronged you. One could be charged for demanding overdue payments, providing that request was coupled with a consequence for non compliance. The consequence could be legal action, a police report, telling their spouse, reporting them to fraud watch facilities and so on.
Punishment: Imprisonment of up to 2 years and a fine of between AED 250,000 - 500,000
Article 17 - Public Morality
It is illegal to manage, run a website, transmit, send or republish “pornographic materials or gambling activities and whatever that may afflict the public morals”.
Issues: Clearly, the wording of “whatever that may afflict the public morals” is undefined and open to subjective and volatile application. This could include sharing photos or memes and could include a common theme such as a couple kissing, a picture of a breastfeeding mother, swear words or other banter that is ever present on social media.
Punishment: Imprisonment (unspecified term) and a fine of between AED 250,000 - AED 500,000
Article 19 - Encouraging Prostitution or "Lewdness"
It is illegal to entice, aid or abet another person to engage in prostitution or lewdness.
Issues: The inclusion of inciting “lewdness” will mean that anyone who is encouraging lustful relations via electronic means, will be in violation of this Article. Whether or not there is an intention to act upon what has been discussed electronically or not, heated online chat can still be a technical violation of this section.
Punishment: Imprisonment (unspecified term) and a fine of between AED 250,000 - 1 million
Article 20 - Insults & Accusations
It is illegal to insult or accuse another person of a matter, especially a police official or government servant.
Issues: The laws on insult and slander have caught a number of people out over the years. They are open to the most extreme of abuses and all people subject to these laws, must exercise extreme caution. Essentially, this boils down to “anything you say online can be used as evidence”. If someone “feels” offended or insulted or slandered, whether or not what was said was true, perceived violators will be charged. Laws to protect the reputation of individuals online are valuable and prevent serious harm, but keep in mind that people can be easily offended or insulted and it is important to keep your online communication limited to positivity. Even a WhatsApp conversation or private Facebook message could technically be considered a breach, if the insulted party were to discover the content.
Punishment: Imprisonment (unspecified term) and a fine of between AED 250,000 - 500,000.
Article 21 - Privacy Violations
It is illegal to (1) transmit or disclose any conversations, communications or audio or visual material (2) Photograph others or create, transfer, disclose, copy or save electronic photos (3) Publish news, photos scenes, comments, statements or information even if true and correct.
Issues: Article 20 has already seen one Australian National deported for photographing a car that was parked in a disabled place. October 2016 news just reported that a second person has been charged under the laws for photographing yet another vehicle in the same circumstances. This provision will see many more charged because photos and information sharing has become part of normal life. An average person’s day out in Dubai might see them in breach of this law repetitively. Perhaps taking photos of friends, people at school, strangers within landscapes and cityscapes. Taking a photo of someone other than yourself could lead to a complaint. We have seen a teenager upload a photo of her school friend to Facebook, to then have the parent’s of her friend open a complaint for “invasion of privacy”. What we generally consider harmless can turn into a one year prison sentence, a huge fine and deportation.
It is even illegal to publish information about someone, such as the fact that someone is on holidays. These points are simply covering positive acts. Imagine if the published information was hostile, insulting or sarcastic in any way.
The rule of thumb is, that if what you store on your device, or publish from your device, is about someone else, you could be liable under Article 20.
Imprisonment of minimum 1 year and a fine of between AED 250,000 - 500,000.
Article 22: Disclosure of information
Disclosure of confidential information, discovered during the courts of his work
Issues: It could be easy to blur the line between what can be disclosed and not, especially if someone's work or business has a more social element involved, such as a hair dresser, gymnasium or other personally oriented service. Emailing another person and telling them that “Judy has the flu, she cancelled her appointment” would be a disclosure of confidential information.
There are professional industries that can also experience these same issues, especially where the company’s clients may be social friends and there is engagement outside of the office.
Debt Collection Agencies have long been in breach of this law, by giving customer information to employers as a form of harassment.
Be mindful that a person’s information is private and confidentiality is expected. While there are undoubtedly breaches of this law, most people would not see the sharing of limited information as a violation of privacy unless it is malicious or unless they become disgruntled in the future.
Punishment: Imprisonment of minimum 6 months and a fine of between AED 500,000 - 1 Million.
Article 24: Protest, discrimination, public order and public morals
It is illegal to promote, via the use of technology, anything which “would promote or praise any programs or ideas which would prompt riot, hatred, racism, sectarianism, or damage the national unity or social peace or prejudice the public order and public morals”.
Issues: Article 24 is very much a “catch all” and another example of a law that will be decided on an individual basis, if someone decides to report the website. Anything that is not a website about dancing frogs or pretty rainbows, could be spotlit. Almost anything could be construed to be inciting hate and almost anything could be considered against public morals, even an information website that talks about or refers to family planning, homosexuality, world issues or topics that are simply unpopular.
Punishment: Imprisonment (unspecified) and a fine of between AED 500,000 - 1 Million.
Article 26: Promotion of Terrorist Group, Unauthorised Groups, associations or organisations
Issues: Bear in mind that “terrorist group” is again subjective, and the strangest of groups and organisations have been branded terrorist or “unauthorised groups”, including organisations that lobby for human rights causes.
Punishment: Imprisonment of minimum 5 years and a fine of between AED 1 - 2 million
Article 27 - Promotion of Charity or Fundraising
It is illegal to establish, manage or run a website or publish information to call or promote for the collection of donations without a license accredited by a competent authority.
Issues: With social media being a major platform for fundraising and charitable campaigning, the introduction of Article 27 is impactful and disappointing to many expats. One can no longer share their favourite charity news, share fundraising links, promote charitable causes, hit the “share” button or actively raise funds themselves. There are less than 20 authorised charities in the UAE and the population is now crippled to raise funds for their own interests. Several expats have already been charged for promoting or sharing a charitable cause online and it is likely to be a law that continues to be broken.
One could be charged today for a charitable post on their Facebook page that was issued two years ago, if the post is still active. Don’t share your favourite international charity in the UAE, no matter how much international popularity it has. Remember too, if there is a world disaster, do not share any relief efforts.
Punishment: Imprisonment (unspecified) and a fine of between AED 200,000 - 500,000