UAE online laws: Know your place in cyber space

An increasing number of businesses across the region are establishing a social media presence. With the UAE's own online laws in place, lawyers suggest that firms monitor content closely.

Illustration by Lee McGorie / The National
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Social media has become entrenched in the commercial world. So much so, it has become a vital tool for many businesses across the globe.

With more than 45 million Facebook users, 4 million on LinkedIn and 2 million on Twitter across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region, it makes sense to try to tap into the digital sphere to promote a company or product and devise a marketing strategy that is cheaper and more accessible than traditional methods.

More and more businesses across the region are establishing a presence on the likes of Facebook and Twitter. It does not require the start-up costs or the time associated with launching and maintaining a company-specific website.

According to research from the international law firm DLA Piper, more than 40 per cent of businesses in the UAE have a social media presence, yet more than a quarter of them do not have a company policy in place regarding the use of such tools, making the companies vulnerable to legal issues.

While social media has been taken up primarily as a marketing and branding tool, experts believe it requires the attention of businesses in its entirety, from human resources to upper levels of management.

The UAE was one of the first countries in the region to pass a cyber law, in 2006, highlighting the need to regulate the online world within a legal framework. Most recently, a decree issued by Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE, produced what has been described as the most detailed and comprehensive cyber law in the Middle East, outlining different types of offences from data theft to digital extortion.

"Some of it looks very similar to the 2006 law, although there is more detail with regard to penalties," says Nick O'Connell, a senior associate at the telecoms, media and technology practice at the law firm Al Tamimi.

Much of the media focus has been placed on defamation, which now carries a minimum three-year jail sentence for those convicted of using the internet to "deride or damage" the reputation of the UAE or its rulers.

Alongside this cyber law, the Publications and Publishing Law and Penal Code provide various articles that can be applied to online activity. Most of these centre on libel, defamation and offensive content.

What is important to highlight is that operators, publishers and owners of websites are liable and can be held accountable for offensive or illegal content posted on their websites.

The risk comes with user-generated content, which makes up some 70 per cent of all content produced in the region. Controlling this is near-impossible in these cases and if a company hosts comment boxes or reproduces content from the likes of Twitter or Facebook on its website, then it can be liable for the comments posted.

Lawyers suggest monitoring websites and ensuring offensive material is deleted quickly. Some companies may be tempted to outsource their online presence to a service provider, which can take away from the daily hassle, but it is necessary to have a good agreement and an outline of policies with them.

A recent survey from Gulf Business Machines showed 35 per cent of businesses in the GCC completely prohibit the use of social media in the workplace, 33 per cent provide partial access while the remaining 32 per cent enable full access.

Almost 80 per cent of internet users across the Middle East spend up to three hours per day on social networks and some of this is no doubt during working hours.

Employers have a right to monitor their computers but it becomes a grey area when monitoring an employee's social media activity as employees have a right to privacy.

Moreover, the lines between work and personal life have become blurred, not just by the fact employees are increasingly bringing their own gadgets to work, but also in the digital sphere.

"You cannot just fire someone for posting drunken pictures on Facebook. You can only terminate a contract with immediate effect if it relates to employee performance," said Gordon Barr, a senior associate of employment at Al Tamimi,at a recent seminar.

If an employee posts disparaging comments on their own social network, the onus is on the employer to prove it has suffered financial losses.

"To show a court that you have suffered financial loss is extremely difficult to prove, it is next to impossible … In time the laws will be buffed up and in the future employers can file complaints," said Mr Barr.

While it is illegal to post defamatory content in the UAE, it is not the case if it is done in another country.

"If someone posted on Facebook, for example, something related to the UAE, the authorities would be interested in taking action but if the person is not able to be identified or is not based here, they could liaise with Facebook to have offending content pulled," says Mr O'Connell.

This, however, can be very difficult. It is time-consuming and a long-drawn process.

In the end, for users, it is probably safest to assume that any laws applicable in the real world will apply online as well.