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What you need to know before going online in the UAE

The United Arab Emirates has a complicated relationship with the internet, being a country that’s both traditionally bound by Sharia Law and trying its best to please international business partners. The government appointed the Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA) in 2003 to unearth content that “contradicts with the ethics and morality of the UAE”, which has resulted in the blocking of several websites.

Understandably, this includes the production, sale and distribution of drugs, but it doesn’t stop there. Laws prevent UAE residents and visitors from opening Israeli websites, anti-Islamic pages, gambling, and pornography. Even a vast range of Wikipedia pages and VoIP services like Skype and WhatsApp cannot be accessed.
The government can keep such tight control over regulation due to the country’s duopoly of telecommunications and Internet service providers, Etisalat and du. Both use NetSweeper, SmartBlocker and Blue Coat ProxySG to effectively lock down search terms and sites from their services, according to Freedom in the World by US advocates at Freedom House.

The same annual publication has labeled the UAE as “Not Free” since Freedom in the World records began 20 years ago. Reporters Without Borders has branded the country as an ‘Enemy of the Internet’ due to the restrictions and the OpenNet Initiative outright calls the filtering ‘pervasive’ on its own rankings.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have become incredibly popular tools in the nation, helping to bypass these restrictions and even access geo-blocked content on BBC iPlayer and Netflix. Unfortunately, the local government has already blocked several VPN websites, causing confusion on the legality of VPNs within the UAE.

While downloading and using a VPN is perfectly legal within the country, using a VPN to access any restricted content is deemed illegal. This might seem clear cut, but it seems as though regulation and punishment are tentative depending on the law being broken.

Authorities are seemingly ignorant towards VoIP cards still being sold within local stores despite Skype and its competitors being banned, potentially indicating that minor violations are brushed aside. It’s likely that the reason for this is to appease international business partners visiting Dubai, while simultaneously protecting the local telecommunications industry from losses.

Even with this legal grey spot, we do not advocate breaking the law, but we do recommend using a VPN for privacy and security reasons. With so many convoluted laws in place, it’s worth ensuring that you opt for a premium, reliable VPN service as free variants often traffic user-data and can cause unnecessary complications. Fortunately, we’ve done the leg-work for you, listing the 5 Best VPNs for the UAE that include strong encryption, a killswitch, and DNS leak protection.


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