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The UAE VPN ban, what does it mean?

Over the last few years more and more people have started enjoying the benefits of using a Virtual Private Network, or VPN for short, especially when they have been unable to link to a physical network, for example when travelling away from home.
What’s more, it’s not simply individuals who find it useful to use these networks. Many businesses do too. This is because VPNs allow employees who are working remotely to connect to their corporate network with a high degree of security due to the data encryption that VPNs provide.
However a number of governments around the world have started to prohibit the use of these networks and one of the highest profile recent examples has been in the UAE. In July the President, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan announced a new law ostensibly to crack down on cyber-crime:  “Whoever uses a fraudulent computer network protocol address (IP address) by using a false address or a third-party address by any other means for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery, shall be punished by temporary imprisonment and a fine of no less than Dh500,000 ($136,000) and not exceeding Dh2,000,000 ($545,000), or either of these two penalties.”
The new law is potentially very bad news for a great number of the expatriates living and working in the UAE – estimated to comprise around 88% of the population. This is because many rely on VPNs to keep in touch with friends and family back home through VoIP services such as WhatsApp, Skype and FaceTime – the use of which constitute a crime in the UAE.
While the ban is an inconvenience to users, there are legitimate crime-fighting benefits of the ban. With cyber-crime becoming an ever greater threat in the world, VPNs are undoubtedly used by wrong-doers who can hide behind the anonymity that these secure networks can provide.
On the other hand, there has also been a degree of cynicism about the genuine motivation for the introduction of the new law with many believing it aims to bolster the income of the Emirates’ own telecoms firms Etisalat and Du. These run their own VPNs whose use is permitted by the Government   - but their charges are reputedly much higher, reflecting their monopoly status.

Peter Zaborszky from believe there are additional considerations for the usage. “While the UAE has officially banned VPNs, communication from UAE based ISPs suggest the risks aren’t that great due to a loophole in the law. VPNs are not actually banned, but using a VPN to hide illegal activity is. So theoretically using a VPN for legal purposes is fine. Even so, proving what you are using a fully encrypted service for is very difficult, so VPN users should proceed with caution.”

The UAE is by no means the first country to impose severe restrictions on the use of VPNs. Many round the world have done the same. In these countries cases, fines and even imprisonment are the most common sanctions. 

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