In Depth: Cryptic UAE Cybercrime Laws - Do not assume compliance… Threats? Lustful Texts? Public Morality? Discussing news? Privacy?
Expert Radha Stirling has dealt with dozens of cybercrime cases since the law's enactment. Detained in Dubai has helped in cases ranging from promoting a charity on Facebook to swearing on WhatsApp to a bad rental car company review.
The UAE Cybercrime laws render all visitors to Dubai in violation on arrival. Anyone could be targeted for arrest during their stay in the UAE.
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.
Punishment: 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
Article 28 - Sharing News, Cartoons or Photos
It is illegal to incite acts or publish information, news or cartoon drawings or any other pictures which may endanger the national security and the higher interests of the State or afflicts its public order.
Issues: Article 28 gives the government of the UAE complete discretion over what it considers a possible breach of this section. In summer 2016, residents were warned not to post pictures of an Emirates Airlines crash incident and this kind of blanket law could be used at the absolute discretion of the government.
Punishment: Imprisonment (unspecified) and a fine of up to AED 1 million
Article 29 - Negative information about the UAE government
It is illegal to publish news, information or statements with intent to “make sarcasm or damage the reputation, prestige or stature of the State or any of its institutions or its president, vice-president, any of the rulers of the Emirates, their crown princess, or the deputy rulers of the Emirates, the State flat, the national peace, its logo, national anthem or any of its symbols”.
Issues: Anything negative that could damage the reputation of the state would include any lobbying for improvement or change in the areas of human rights, the judicial system, the penal system, the healthcare system, the policing system and so on. Article 29 silences all criticism, whether or not it is for the aim of positive and productive change.
Of course, this means that only positive comments are seen in articles on online newspapers and social media posts.
Punishment: Imprisonment (unspecified) and a fine of between AED 500,000 - 1 Million.
Article 31 - Disobeying UAE laws while using the internet
It is illegal to incite or disobey the laws and regulations in force in the UAE.
Issues: The average person could be in regular breach of this section, perhaps posting or sharing pictures in relation to charities, alcohol, medicinal marijuana, sex, government, violence, politics, religion and so on.
Punishment: Imprisonment (unspecified) and a fine of between AED 200,000 - 1 Million.
Article 34 - Using content not authorised or licensed for use in the UAE
It is illegal to access services over the internet that are not authorised for use in the UAE.
Issues: This can include content from news stations, videos, movies or other unlicensed streaming.
Punishment: Imprisonment of at least 1 year and a fine of between AED 250,000 - 1 Million.
Article 35 - Insulting Religion and Promoting Sin
It is illegal to insult Islamic or other recognised sanctities or rituals. It is a crime to insult any aspect of the Islamic religion.
Issues: This includes any humorous content or pictures that could have even been shared by other religious people about their own religion. Even though it is common to be light hearted about religion and rituals, if someone complains, the authorities will enforce charges.
It is also possible to be engaged in debate or conversation about aspects of religion, which may be misinterpreted or taken as offensive, even though that was not the intent of the poster.
Furthermore, condoning, provoking or promoting sin is considered a serious offence. This could include condoning behaviour considered sinful in Islam (drinking alcohol, sex outside of marriage, atheism or exploring alternative religions etc.).
Remember that statements do not even need to be public to be considered criminal and the sanctions are severe.
Punishment: Imprisonment of up to 7 years and a fine of between AED 250,000 - 1 Million.
Article 38 - Providing information to an Organisation that may be considered damaging to the State
It is illegal to provide incorrect, inaccurate or misleading information which may damage the interests of the State, or injures its reputation, prestige or stature.
Issues: Any information provided to external organisations, such as Amnesty International for example, that is negative, will be subject to scrutiny under this section. It is imperative therefore, to maintain meticulous records and evidence, in the event that information is being provided about the State, to external parties. If the State is unhappy with the information, it will be difficult to prove innocence, even with evidence.
Punishment: Imprisonment (unspecified).
Article 41 - Confiscation of Assets
Any devices used to commit may be confiscated by the State (computer, phone, domain name, website).
Article 42 - Deportation
The court has the authority to decide on whether a convicted foreigner will be deported or not.
The court has the authority to order the convicted person to be placed under surveillance or deprive him from access to electronic infrastructure or place him in a rehabilitation centre.
Article 44 - Crimes against State Security
Articles 4, 24, 26, 28, 30 & 39 will be considered crimes against the State security. This means that violators or suspected violators (even meme sharers) could end up in a State security detention facility for an undetermined duration.
Article 45 - Sentence exemption for snitches.
If someone arrested for a crime, provides information to the police on others who were involved, the public prosecutor can request an exemption from punishment.
Article 47 - Cybercrime laws even apply outside of the UAE
The cybercrime laws apply to any person who has breached these laws “outside of the country” if the content “relates to the federal government of any of the local governments of the Emirates of the State or any authority or public institution owned by any of them”.
This could also be interpreted to apply to any companies or investment schemes owned by the government entities and will be applied retroactively, so check the history of your web presence before travel.
Our Cybercrime Cases in the Media
Detained in Dubai - by CEO Radha Stirling & Warning
- Ms Stirling publishes regular articles and reports, often covering human rights issues, political prisoners, Middle Eastern finance and debt laws, social media laws, cybercrime laws and Interpol red notice abuse.
Laleh Shahravesh back in UK after horse jibe row in Dubai
- Laleh Shahravesh, 55, had faced up to two years in jail after calling her ex-husband's new wife a "horse".
UAE Drops Cybercrime Charges Against American Who Insulted Vengeful Ex by Email.
- Melissa McBurnie was accused of violating the UAE's strict cybercrime laws after allegedly sending an insulting email to an Egyptian ex-boyfriend, whom she said had been cyber-bullying and sexually harassing her for years.
London barrister faces losing her children in misogynistic Dubai legal ordeal
- Partners have taken advantage of the strict cybercrime laws in the country, accusing each other of “rude” or “offensive” private WhatsApp communications, an imprisonable offence ...in The UAE.
Israelis sold the elusive “Dubai dream” could be walking into a nightmare - Gulf in Justice Podcast
- Ms Stirling discusses the potential risks to Israelis, issues pertaining to free speech, the UAE’s cybercrime and social media laws, the persecution of minority groups and the serious risk to businessmen and investors.
- A report ...accusing a private Israeli intelligence firm of impersonating journalists in order to elicit information from opponents of an Emirati royal family shines a spotlight on Israeli cyber intelligence firms that reportedly do business in authoritarian regimes.
- A British human resources manager has been held in Dubai after her Ukrainian flatmate lodged a police complaint over a “rude” WhatsApp message sent over a petty household dispute...
- Daughter of HH Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum of Dubai and the UAE has been demonstrating her new freedoms...
UAE Drops Cybercrime Charges Against American Who Insulted Vengeful Ex by Email
- With the support of British advocate Radha Stirling, who works for UAE civil and criminal justice specialists Detained in Dubai, 57-year-old McBurnie was able to persuade UAE prosecutors to drop the charge against her.
- The group [Detained in Dubai] helps people with legal problems in the Middle East but primarily in the UAE, including both civil and criminal cases. Its clients include tourists, businesspeople, people on relocation, investors and more...
- A number of foreigners have been detained under the UAE’s “Cybercrime Laws” that criminalise discussions that Western societies would consider normal, including going so far as to ban the online sharing or promotion of registered charities.