How the VPN law relates to you and the way you live your life

Andrew Fawcett assesses the VPN law from a legal perspective

VPN use by companies, institutions and banks to gain access to the internet for legitimate purposes is legal. Christopher Pike / The National
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A recent law change in the UAE regarding the use of Virtual Private Networks and subsequent media reports have put the use of VPNs by residents under the spotlight.

Article 9 of Federal Law No 5 of 2012, which is the country’s Cyber Crimes Law, provides that using a fraudulent IP address for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery is illegal. But it does not make using a VPN for legitimate purposes a crime in itself. The law is not new, but was recently amended to increase applicable fines.

However, there are some complexities that need to be understood. There are plenty of legitimate uses of VPNs by businesses. A VPN uses a public network to establish a “virtual” private network for a particular group of users, allowing them to have secure access to share data.

Businesses commonly use VPNs to share servers and other resources across offices or stores. VPNs also enable employees working remotely to access files, applications and printers.

The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority recently clarified that VPN use by companies, institution and banks to gain access to internal networks via the internet for legitimate purposes is legal.

VPNs can also be used by an individual to disguise his or her genuine IP address – the identifier that allows information to be sent between devices on a network – concealing the person’s location information and online activity. While reasons for using a VPN to hide an IP address may well be legitimate, such as for privacy and identity protection, disguising an IP address is also a feature of VPN technology that has a great potential for abuse. It can be used for illegal activities, which is what Article 9 intends to prevent.

While certain activities are clearly illegal here – such as pornography, hacking and gambling – other activities that can potentially be seen as crimes in the local context may not be so obvious. For example, is it illegal to use a VPN to access blocked television content from abroad? The strict answer is: it depends.

The TRA regulates access to content available on the internet and lists categories of prohibited content that contradict the country’s Islamic identity, culture, tradition, rules and regulations, which ISPs then block.

Using a VPN to bypass such filters breaches the “acceptable use of service” provisions in your Etisalat or du contract. Breaching a contract is generally not a crime. However, saving or sending materials for the purpose of distribution or display for a third party that may prejudice public morals is a crime under the Cyber Crimes Law.

Most television networks around the world now offer some form of online streaming of content, but can block access to users outside their broadcast area. A VPN that creates the appearance of a different IP address and location can be used to gain access to that blocked content. Of course, not all overseas online streamed content – such as the BBC series Doctor Who – will prejudice public morals in the UAE as per the TRA policy or the Cyber Crimes Law.

The geographic blocking of programming by content providers for reasons other than censorship is primarily due to copyright and licensing restrictions: ownership of exclusive territorial rights typically differs geographically, so content providers must block user access outside their designated region. For example, only residents of the United States can use the online service HBO Now, different broadcasters have exclusive programming rights, such as OSN in the UAE. Similarly, access to shows and movies by subscription and on-demand services, such as Netflix, varies from one region to another.

So, is using a VPN to evade geographic blocks illegal?

Infringing copyright is a crime in this country. However, the application of the copyright law to the evasion of blocks is not necessarily clear. While downloading blocked content is unlawful because you are making a copy, streaming blocked content may not be illegal as no copy is made.

You should also not make false declarations to access an overseas streaming service – such as with BBC iPlayer, which requires confirmation that users have paid the annual UK television licence fee. Also, be aware that only Etisalat and du are licensed to provide telecommunication services, including VPNs, to subscribers in the UAE, and any other VPN provider’s service here may not be legal.

Ultimately, if you use a VPN, you should ensure that you are not using it for the purposes of wrongdoing. There are no reported examples indicating how the law will actually be enforced by the competent authorities. Whether or not someone accessing South American soap operas will be a law enforcement priority is open to debate, but in respect of using a VPN to access blocked content from overseas, it is not possible to categorically state that in all circumstances this is lawful.

Andrew Fawcett is a senior associate at Al Tamimi & Company