Thursday, March 6, 2008

UAE Internet to Be Liberalized, Sort-Of

Business 24-7 recently ran a story on plans to "liberalize" the Internet within the UAE, specifically the system of blocks which restrict residents' access to websites which are "inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values United Arab Emirates" or compete with the two state-dominated Internet Service Providers (ISPs), which coincidentally also provide all land and mobile phone service in the country as well (which is why VOIP is banned). Sensitive political sites are also blocked, particularly those which highlight problems within the UAE itself.

Some of these are criminal (phishing sites, for example), or truly objectionable by any measure (I am 100% for blocking child pornography sites, for example, and although I disagree I see their point about regular pornographic sites or pages that are both untrue and nasty), but a lot of it is frustrating and overly controlling. An art site (with no pornography, but with the very occasional nude) is among the blocked, as is the photo sharing site Flickr, which means that I can't email my father a link to my latest vacation pictures (he's not the sort to VPN). Which is just as well because if he saw me and the Dear Sister feeding the elephants apples all sorts of mayhem would break out. Facebook was out too until public outcry forced it back on the .ae net.

Which is why I found it so interesting when the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), which oversees these blocks, announced that they are in the process of developing a plan to "liberalize" Internet access. In a way they are right; the new plan will permit them to block only sub-sites, for example those pages on Flickr showing "objectionable" images or the Facebook pages related to dating services. This could open up the rest of Flickr and other such sites, which I like. It will however bring in new controls to popular sites which are currently entirely open, including Facebook.

It also makes me wonder what exactly will be blocked? Any profile listing the member as interested in dating for example? Random play? I think that latter option is stupid (are you really looking for "random play" on Facebook?) but a lot of people list those. What about people who just list themselves as "single" or give each other virtual alcoholic drinks?

Even more concerning are plans to institute these new blocks on the services provided by Du. Right now Etisalat provides all coverage in the UAE except in some free zones, where Du provides unblocked access to the foreign companies and their employees which operate therein. These new restrictions will apply there as well, thereby closing the last avenue to free information available to those who lack the technical understanding to circumvent the blocks.

The TRA also promises that the plan will include measures to improve Internet service and lower prices in the country. Neither is that great right now, and real improvements are sure to be welcome, which is why I'm sure this topic, unrelated to the issue of censorship in terms of applicable regulations or economic measures, was included in the "liberalization" plan.

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