Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Beating the UAE Content Filter

Emirates Today led today with the story that a Saudi-based company is offering a UAE content filter beating package that installs a personal proxy for its customers. UAE telecom regulator the TRA has, predictably, said this is illegal and that people who use it will have their fingernails taken out and be bastinadoed with dried pasta until they cry.

OK. So I made up the fingernails and pasta bits.

But I found ‘illegal’ an interesting use of words. I think a telecom regulator can say that something is contrary to regulation, but can they claim it as illegal without the backing of an actual law to enact? I thought that something enshrined in statute was law and that the application of that law and precedent through the courts defined legality or illegality. And UAE law (I will rapidly say that I am no expert and invite anybody who knows better to please contradict/clarify this) wouldn’t appear to be particularly hot on the whole issue of cyber-legislation, let alone the application of any such legislation in the courts.

Although you could try applying the UAE publishing law to the Internet and the whole issue of what content is acceptable or not, you’d have a hard time squeezing that round peg into the square hole that is the WWW. As far as I’m aware, Etisalat’s proxy server and content blocking/filtering system was wholly unilaterally implemented and was not a legislated requirement. As others have pointed out in the past, the Etisalat filtering system not only filters content that would be considered offensive in a Muslim country, but also does a neat job of blocking Israeli sites (handy: you can’t actually get information from moderate Israeli voices or even research Israeli companies investing in areas that are of commercial interest to the Arab World), IP telephony providers such as Skype and, the great crime to my mind, a number of social networking sites such as Flickr and Twitter.

A digression. Given that the latter are core components of the Web 2.0 revolution that everyone’s bibbling about, I like to save up some anger about that whole decision that social networking is ‘dating’ and therefore unacceptable. I have pointed out before (not least when speaking at conferences) that the human race has been able to ‘get it on’ for some considerable time before Twitter was introduced. I don’t think blocking Web 2.0 networks will stop that boy meets girl thing from happening, do you?

Getting back to the point, then: although there are laws governing the creation, possession and sale of offensive content, and these define what constitutes offensive content in the UAE, I am not aware of laws that govern blocking competitive service providers or social networking sites. That would be a highly advanced (more advanced than anywhere in Europe, the USA or Asia) piece of legislation indeed. So there's potentially room to question the legal basis for blocking any of this stuff. I'm not talking morality or desirability: just the existence of a law. And, again, I’m not expert so please do take a pop if you know better.

So given the above holds water, you have to question the TRA’s ability to use the law, as it so readily threatens, to pursue people who sign up to this new proxy service. Of course, once content is physically present on a machine/storage in the UAE, other, highly effective and easy to understand laws come into play. But access alone… that’s a difficult one, no?

A small thought: the Internet is not blocked in Jordan or Egypt, as well as other Middle Eastern countries. Society has not crumbled as a consequence. Quite the opposite, both countries lead the region in ICT-based value creation and talent building.

Incidentally, the Emirates Today headline screams ‘INTERNET BLOCKER BEATER’ and is directly underneath an Etisalat strap advertisement that says ‘Wherever you go, we extend your reach’.

A nice piece of flat-planning and a beautiful last thought. :0)

No comments:

From The Dungeons

Book Marketing And McNabb's Theory Of Multitouch

(Photo credit: Wikipedia ) I clearly want to tell the world about A Decent Bomber . This is perfectly natural, it's my latest...