HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH The Internet In The Mideast And North Africa: Free Expression and Censorship
Arabic Version
United Arab Emirates
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United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates, one of the world's wealthiest and most technologically modern countries,(130) can also claim to being the most wired state in the Arab world. As of October 1988 it had 52,000 subscribers and 143,000 users, according to one estimate.(131) The country has numerous cybercafés, and, according to the Middle East Internet Directory for 1998, the largest number of corporate web sites.(132) Government ministries maintain sophisticated web sites and a public-sector think-tank, the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (<>), hosts international conferences on the information revolution in the region.(133)

The U.A.E. has at the same time been the regional leader in advocating censorship of the Web through the use of high-tech means. An official with Etisalat (the Emirates Telecommunications Corporation), which is the country's state-controlled telecommunications monopoly and sole Internet provider, was quoted in 1997 as saying, "Singapore has succeeded to a great extent in its drive to control harm done by the Internet. Why cannot we?"(134)

Dial-up users in the U.A.E. do not access the Internet directly. They dial in to a proxy server maintained by Etisalat. The proxy will refuse access to web sites if the URL requested is on a list of banned sites, or if a content check of the site by the proxy server turns up objectionable material.

Government officials, who acknowledged that this censorship regime was administered by the state telecommunications company, insisted that its sole purpose was to block pornographic sites. A senior official in the Ministry of Information and Culture, who was interviewed on condition his name not be used, told Human Rights Watch in a telephone interview on June 10, 1998:

There is no restriction on the political, social, economic side. Politically, in the U.A.E., we do not hold value for censorship, especially political or censorship of ideas: we don't believe in that. You can access on the Internet any material, from Israel or anywhere. The whole idea [of the proxy system] was to block X-rated materials. You can see the first pages [of sexually explicit sites], but not whatever is after that.

The official added that although Etisalat blocks attempts to access proscribed material, authorities do not track individual users' online activities. However, such monitoring, if it ever were to be conducted, would be facilitated by the fact that all dial-in users are channeled through a proxy server operated by a public utility.

The same official acknowledged that the proxy filtering system was not foolproof. "You can get to porno," he said, "because you can always just dial a foreign server. We try our best to limit x-rated material, but you can never really build a wall." Other officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch concurred and added that the proxy server prevents access only for users with dial-up service. Users who connect via a dedicated line--found primarily in workplaces--access the Internet directly, bypassing the censorship imposed by the proxy server.

An official at Etisalat, who also asked not to be named, told Human Rights Watch in a June 18, 1998 telephone interview that the proxy system is maintained in collaboration with a U.S. firm that is contracted to maintain and update the filtering software that is run by the proxy server. The Etisalat staff reviews web sites, sometimes responding to complaints or tips from users, and informs the U.S. company of material they wish to block. The official refused to disclose the name of the U.S. company, or provide the criteria used to determine which sites are blocked. Etisalat provides the U.S. company with "broad guidelines," he explained, for rooting out objectionable sites. Denying that this included political or cultural sites, he said the "guidelines we've passed along are fairly basic." They focus on the "sexually explicit."

An information systems manager who worked for Etisalat when the proxy server system was being developed in the mid-1990s told Human Rights Watch in a June 9, 1998 telephone interview that the system was set up in response to concerns that "there was a great deal of misuse [of the Internet] among teenagers." To complement the filtering done by the U.S. company, Etisalat "got a program running with parents, or with whomever finds [an objectionable] site, so that the person will inform Etisalat and then Etisalat restricts it. There's a committee of technical people at Etisalat who look at the site, and verify it has nude pictures, and then they stop it."

While all of the Emirati officials we interviewed insisted that the proxy server exists only to block pornography, Human Rights Watch identified at least one blocked site that is cultural and political in nature. It is the site of the Gay and Lesbian Arabic Society (<>). When asked about the site, the Information and Culture Ministry official quoted above acknowledged that it was blocked, explaining, "We got complaints about it."

GLAS describes itself in its web site as:

a networking organization for Gay and Lesbians of Arab descent or those living in Arab countries. We aim to promote positive images of Gays and Lesbians in Arab communities worldwide. We also provide a support network for our members while fighting for our human rights wherever they are oppressed. We are part of the global Gay and Lesbian movement seeking an end to injustice and discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The GLAS web site hosts a chat-line, and reports and editorializes on such topics as AIDS, asylum cases involving gays and transsexuals, civil marriages in Lebanon, and the imprisonment of political dissidents in the region. In May of 1998, GLAS proclaimed on its web site:

We are also keeping track of flagrant human rights violations in Gulf countries and particularly in the U.A.E. where recent deportation of HIV patients has made headlines....Such activities need to be denounced at every occasion. The U.A.E. puts a lot of effort at presenting itself as a major business center in the area. The message should be sent that human rights violations will not be ignored and that we will make sure their image continues to be tarnished and their violations denounced.

Human Rights Watch is unaware of web sites belonging to governments or political movements that are blocked in the U.A.E. However, the blocking of the GLAS site indicates that Internet censorship in the U.A.E. exceeds the proclaimed goal of restricting pornography.

The U.A.E. government did not reply in writing to the list of questions submitted by Human Rights Watch to all governments of the region. It did however invite Human Rights Watch to the U.A.E. Embassy in Washington to discuss Internet issues. In addition, officials in the Ministry of Information and Culture and another at Etisalat proved willing to answer some questions during telephone interviews with Human Rights Watch; they are cited above.

At the embassy meeting, held on July 10, 1998, political counselor Abdullah al-Saleh and legal advisor Mohamed Mattar explained that Internet users enjoyed considerable freedom in the U.A.E., and pointed to constitutional guarantees of free expression and of privacy. Article 30 of the U.A.E. Constitution states, "Freedom of opinion and expressing it verbally, in writing or by other means of expression shall be guaranteed within the limits of law." Article 31 states, "Freedom of communication by post, telegraph or other means of communication and the secrecy thereof shall be guaranteed in accordance with the law." Mattar suggested that the references in these articles to "other means" presumably extended to the Internet. Similarly, the 1991 law on telecommunications, which affirms the application of criminal law statutes (such as with respect to fraud) to the realm of telecommunications, would apply to conduct on the Internet. He stated that the U.A.E. had no Internet-specific legislation.

Al-Saleh added that the U.A.E.'s only intervention with regard to Internet use concerns the blocking of web sites. He said the state does not interfere with or conduct surveillance of e-mail. There have been no arrests, he said, of persons for any kind of "misuse" of the Internet. Human Rights Watch has received no information that contradicts his assertions. However, Maj. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, the Chief of Police of Dubai, one of the seven constituent emirates of the U.A.E., publicly advocated police oversight of the Internet. In 1996, for example, he was quoted in the press as saying that the Ministry of Information and the police, rather than Etisalat, should be responsible for licensing Internet use. "In all cases, the information should be filtered, scanned and then made available to users," the Gulf News quoted him as saying.(135) Asked for comment on Tamim's proposal to give the police and information ministry oversight of the Internet, the Information and Culture Ministry official quoted above wrote to Human Rights Watch on June 16, 1998 that this had never been implemented and merely represented "his [the police chief's] point of view."

The same official also stated that all web sites must be registered with the Ministry of Information. "But this is just a formality; we've never denied any request, and don't think we ever will. We do not monitor the material. It's just to make sure it's a real company," to prevent commercial fraud and copyright infringements.

130. World Bank, World Development Report, 1998/99 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, published for the World Bank, 1999), and International Telecommunication Union, World Telecommunication Development Report, 3rd ed., 1996/97 (Geneva: International Telecommunication Union, 1997). The ITU web site, <www.itu.inti>, has links to a variety of country-by-country telecommunications statistics.

131. Survey published in the November 1998 Internet al-Alam al-Arabi magazine (<>, summarized in English at <>.

132. Although one estimate ranked the U.A.E. highest in absolute numbers of users, Qatar, with its smaller population, had a higher proportion of its population using the Internet: 3.1 percent as opposed to 2.99 percent in January 1998. See Appendix A.

133. It sponsored, for example, "The Impact of the Information and Communications Revolution on Society and State in the Arab World," January 4-7, 1997. The conference papers were published as The Information Revolution and the Arab World: Its Impact on State and Society (Abu Dhabi: The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, 1998).

134. Reuters, January 25, 1997.

135. "Dubai: Emirates Telecoms Group, Police in Internet Row," Reuters, June 18, 1996.

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© June 1999
Human Rights Watch