UAE expats beware, tough social media law could see you deported for saving someone’s photo

Recent cases have highlighted how the UAE’s cybercrime law takes a hard stance against those who take photos of people without their approval or post defamatory remarks on social media.

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ABU DHABI // Phone and computer users have been warned against falling foul of the 2012 law against cybercrime.

Simply possessing on an electronic device a photo taken without the subject’s consent is an offence for which expatriates could be deported, a leading prosecutor said.

Mohammed Al Dhanhani, head of the family prosecution service in Abu Dhabi, also said more people were being ordered to leave the country because they had insulted their spouse on messaging platforms such as WhatsApp.

“We have received 10 such cases since the beginning of the year,” he said.

New light was thrown on the cybercrime law by the case of Jodi Magi, the Australian woman deported from Abu Dhabi this month after posting offensive remarks with a photo of her neighbour's car in a disabled parking space.

Hussein Abdullah, head of social media at the advisory company Al Sayegh Media, believes too much was made of it. “I see these cases are being blown out of proportion – this is the first case I have heard so much of since social media started here,” he said.

The law served a useful purpose if it made people think more carefully about what they posted online, he said. “If that is how the law regulates moral values, then it is an added value for people to become moral.”

The 2012 law says that breaching someone’s privacy by copying, saving or publishing their photo or personal data using an electronic device is an offence punishable by at least six months in prison and/or a fine of up to Dh500,000, even if the photo was taken in a public place.

Mr Al Dhanhani said previous law covered only photos taken in private places. “Now any person in any place, if they claim the photo was taken without their consent, there can be a prosecution.”

The new law also specifies automatic deporation for any expatriate convicted of breaking it, even if the accuser withdraws the complaint.

“If the judge does not issue a deportation order, the verdict is considered invalid and public prosecution appeals it,” Mr Al Dhanhani said.

However, prosecutors do not automatically accept an accuser’s claim that a photo was taken without their permission. “During investigations it becomes obvious if the person agreed to it or not.”

Mr Al Dhanhani said many people were unaware of how the law applied to photos. “If I took a picture and sent it to my friend via WhatsApp, for instance, and he saved it on his phone, he could be prosecuted even if he did not do anything with it.”

He gave an example of a teenage boy who blackmailed an 11-year-old into sending him naked photos of himself and his siblings.

The teenager sent the photos to a friend and deleted them from his own phone. The friend sent them on to a third teenager. The first two were prosecuted for sharing the photos, while the third protested his innocence because he had done nothing with the photos.

“But they were saved on his phone so he was punished as well,” said Mr Al Dhanhani.

Insults using smartphone apps are also covered by the 2012 law. “Previously, insults were mostly made through text messages or phone calls, which was a misdemeanour,” said Mr Al Dhanhani.

Nour Kaafarani, a social media manager at Al Sayegh Media, said the law served a valuable purpose. “From my work in social media I can tell you how fast things spread if they are used in fake profiles or to obtain information … so such a law protects people from such practices.”

She said it was essential to obtain written consent from subjects before using their pictures in official campaigns, because it was common for them to change their minds after the photos were published.

However, Ms Kaafarani said that because the law also covered photos taken innocently at public social gatherings, a lighter touch was required in its application.

“From this angle it is too much, especially if there is no harm caused, and the image is not used in an inappropriate way, and there is no history of problems between the accused and the accuser.

“It should be slightly lighter and more fair.”

People in general should be considerate of other people’s privacy and reputation before they published anything, whether there was a law or not, she said.