Police call for internet providers to monitor content

The head of Dubai Police called on Etisalat and Du to monitor users' access to "inappropriate" material and report them to authorities.

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DUBAI // Dubai's police chief has urged the establishment of a task force to monitor all internet activity and bring to justice anyone found distributing illicit material.

The task force would comprise members of Dubai's Public Prosecution Service, Dubai Police and the telecoms providers Etisalat and du, Lt Gen Chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim said.

"Etisalat and du have the power to know who sent what to who over BlackBerry, iPhone or the internet. What we need is to set up a mechanism to find the illicit material being distributed and track down its source, then take legal action by police and prosecutors.

"I would like Etisalat and du to present a team to work with us and the prosecutor's office after Eid to take this forward."

Gen Tamim said the task force would monitor online activity, and as soon as a person was found distributing illicit material, it would issue a warning. If the activity continued, the task force could bar internet use by disconnecting their account. Finally, legal action could be taken.

He warned that the current explosion of social media and internet use could be detrimental to society without proper monitoring and control.

"We cannot deny the pros of the internet and social networking, but I fear that if we do not quell this direct broadcast of information within the next 10 years, we will have a society without any morals and considerations of what is wrong or right," he said.

Gen Tamim said he had decided to look more closely at the situation after an incident involving a friend who received an anonymous pornographic message on BlackBerry Messenger.

“One day while I was sitting with a friend, he received a message on BlackBerry Messenger and he smiled. When I questioned him on its content he showed it to me and it was a video of sexual intercourse. He was not able to know where it came from, and this got me wondering how many such messages reach children, who all are tech-savvy and have such devices.”

Etisalat’s chief corporate communications officer, Ali Al Ahmed, said there were ways to tackle the distribution of data, but it was difficult.

“Solutions are there, but due to the number of users in the UAE, it can be nearly impossible to track every movement. This would also require large manpower,” he said.

Mr Al Ahmed said a wider monitoring system would also require the support of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.

“The police themselves cannot do it, we cannot do it as operators, the TRA cannot do it. All those people need to come together,” he said. “In the UAE, you’re talking about more than four million people on Facebook. It’s more than 50 per cent of the population.”

The TRA did not respond to a request for comment. Du declined to comment.

Abdel Aziz Al Ghurair, chairman of Al Ghurair Group, pledged to support the initiative financially. “As private businessmen, we are ready to support and financially back this endeavour. We are committed to help the country’s interests,” said Mr Al Ghurair, who is also Federal National Council speaker.

However, technology experts said those spreading illicit material online could easily cover their tracks with special software.

“The reality is, anyone who doesn’t want to get monitored, it’s pretty hard for them to be monitored,” said Yousef Tuqan Tuqan, chief executive of the digital agency Flip Media in Dubai.

“Finding out what people are saying in public forums like Facebook and Twitter isn’t too difficult,” he said. “We’ve had stories in the UK this week of people who were actually stupid enough to create groups on Facebook called things like ‘let’s go start a riot’.”

The UAE is one of the world’s top 10 Facebook-using countries by percentage. The prominent Emirati social media commentator Sultan Al Qassimi said: “In the past, an illiterate person was someone who could not read and write. Today, an illiterate person is someone who cannot use the internet.

“Its development in the UAE is huge. Two years ago, there were 5,000 Twitter users in the country. Now there are over 200,000.”

Mr Al Qassimi advised parents to be better educated about internet and social media. “One great danger is the phenomenon of geo-tracking. A child can place where he and his family are at any given time, and publish this to the world, which can lead criminals to their locations or homes,” he said.

“Furthermore, private information can be exchanged from a person’s profile and used criminally from these websites.”

The Anti-Cyber Crime Law issued by the President, Sheikh Khalifa, in 2006 covers all criminal activities relating to immoral materials, terrorism, defamation, hacking, fraud, insults to religion and creed, dissemination of secrets and even spying on another person’s computer.

Those convicted face up to five years in jail and fines of up to Dh50,000.



Officers who police the net

In 2004, Dubai Police set up an electronic crimes division with a dedicated “cyber patrol” team.

The team of officers patrol social-media sites, internet chat rooms and blogs to weed out illegal activities.

“We have in place all the necessary legal framework to monitor these sites and investigate them as soon as we suspect any sort of fraudulent or negative web pages that may cause harm to the public,” said Brigadier General Khalil Al Mansoori, the director of Dubai Police CID.

* Awad Mustafa