New UAE Cybercrime Law – Webmaster Liability

UAE passed a new cybercrime law that has been criticised for its apparent attempt to restrict freedom of expression, but this law also happens to introduce a new mechanism to limit the liability of webmasters for content published by third parties.

The first cybercrime law in UAE was passed in 2006 which criminalised a lot of acts on the Internet relating to fraud and the misuse of technology. The new law that was passed early this month introduced many new offences that relate to the use of technology to organise unauthorised protests, receive unauthorised donations, attempt to overthrow the government, and mock the rulers of UAE. The new law also provides for many other general offences such as those relating to terrorism, violation of privacy, and the trafficking of drugs or persons.

The reaction to the new law has been mostly negative as many see it as an attempt to restrict the freedom of expression in the UAE to a new level. I believe that these claims are exaggerated because the new law did not in reality add any new offences in relation to freedom of expression that did not already exist in a general form in other legislations in UAE. For example, attempting to overthrow the government has always been an offence in UAE whether technology was used in that attempt or not. The new law is merely a confirmation of existing principles.

On the other hand, a new interesting feature of the new UAE law which has not yet been highlighted is a provision specifying that a webmaster will be liable for any illegal content that he is aware of on his website. However, if the webmaster is not aware of such content, he would be liable for it only if he does not remove that content upon receiving a notification from the authorities informing him of the illegality of that content.

This is a good step for providing webmasters, such as owners of forums and bloggers, with some comfort that they will not be held responsible for the comments published by users of their website. The authorities previously had an expectation that a webmaster should be held liable for every single comment posted on his website, whether or not made by him, as he is the owner of the website and is in a position to moderate these comments.

This was an unrealistic approach because moderators of popular websites cannot practically pre-approve every single comment published on their website and it is unreasonable to expect a webmaster to be able to make a legal assessment of the content published by others on his website to decide whether or not that content violates any law.

The fact that a webmaster will not be held liable for content he is not aware of will of course not change his liability for any content that he publishes himself regardless of whether or not he knows that this content was illegal. The provision also does not change the position of the liability of the person who posts illegal content on the website of another person. The webmaster of a website will also be reasonably expected to assist the authorities in identifying the offending person upon receiving such an order from a competent authority.

This new provision is a great improvement for webmasters, but it is still far from perfect as the authorities can abuse this system to order a webmaster to remove any content from his website which may not necessarily be illegal, and the webmaster is likely to abide by their notice to escape any potential liability.

Even with the opportunity of abuse, this new addition is better than the current position in many other Gulf countries, including Oman, where the law seems to suggest that a webmaster is strictly liable for all content on his website whether or not he was aware of it.

Jordan’s New Web Laws

Until recently, Jordan had been a great example of how an Arab country can have a liberal approach for regulating the Internet in a manner that aims at promoting innovation and the development of web culture. This might soon change if Jordan decides to pass the new amendment to its publication law that will treat websites like traditional paper publications.

Jordan had taken a progressive approach in regulating the Internet as the Internet has remained unfiltered for a long period of time and individuals have been free to start any website they wish without the need to satisfy any formalities. This has enabled the web in Jordan to mature quicker than in other countries in the region and foreign tech companies such as Google and Yahoo established offices there.

This situation might change as some Jordanian activists started rallying the government to censor pornographic websites on the Internet as they believed that it is the government’s duty to do so. Surprisingly for a country in this region, the government of Jordan was hesitant to impose any technical censorship filters, and instead responded to the demands of the public by offering a free filtering software that families can install on their own personal computers to limit the access their children had to websites on the Internet. The Telecom Regulation Commission of Jordan eventually gave in to the demands made by the protesters and issued orders to local ISPs to figure out mechanisms to start censoring websites.

The Jordanian Cabinet has also recently approved a draft proposal for amending the Jordanian Publication Law that will subject news websites to the same rules that apply to regular paper publications in Jordan. This amendment will require any website that publishes news and articles about Jordanian foreign or internal affairs to register with the government and acquire a licence before it can legally operate, and the website must also employ an editor who is a member of the Jordanian Press Association.

The new amendment will also have additional provisions that address websites specifically such as a new provision that explicitly makes the website admin liable for all content on his website and that the website admin must maintain a record of all comments made on the website for a period not less than six months. The Cabinet approved amendment will still need to be approved by the Jordanian Parliament before it will officially be passed as law.

These new developments in Jordan surely cannot have a positive impact on the development of the Internet in Jordan. The Internet is censored in a majority of other Arab countries and this censorship surely does not work because you can still have access to pornography even without the need to use any circumvention method such as a VPN.

It is not logical to apply the same formalities that apply to the traditional press. It will be impossible to enforce these rules, especially as the difference in the impact made by a proper news website and that of a personal blog of an individual is getting extremely nominal.

The future is still not totally bleak for Jordan, as opposing activists are trying to raise awareness in Jordan about the benefits of keeping the Internet free from censorship and the fact that the new law proposal will still have to go through the Parliament before it gets officially passed.

It is unfortunate that the Internet in Jordan is facing all these challenges. Let’s hope that this does not set an example of other countries in the region to impose further restrictions on the Internet in their own jurisdictions.

Indian Censorship in Oman

If you are a fan of Bollywood films and happen to be a user of Omantel’s home broadband service, you might be surprised to find that a number of websites that cover such films are blocked in Oman, not because the Omani government has anything against them, but because the Indian government has decided that such websites need to be blocked.

Censorship in Oman is not as big a problem as it is in some of the neighbouring countries. The most irritating aspect about censorship in Oman is the restriction on VoIP services such as Skype, but no other major website such as Blogger, Wikipedia, YouTube, or Flickr is blocked in the country.

Censorship in Oman is about to get unpredictably complex as a report by the OpenNet Initiative has found evidence of the inaccessibility of a number of websites in Oman due to the routing practices of Omantel.

According to the OpenNet Initiative, Omantel has signed a number of agreements with an Indian Internet service provider for traffic peering that allows Omantel and the Indian service provider to share their traffic with the intention of improving the performance and reliability of the service provided by both ISPs. This means that when a user in Oman attempts to open a website, his request might be routed from Omantel to the Indian ISP and then to the Worldwide Web.

An unintended consequence of this practice is that an Omani user will not be able to access a website if it is blocked in India and Omantel decided to route that request through the Indian ISP. For example, an attempt to visit absongs.com and desimusic.com from an Omantel connection would come up with a page that says, “This website/URL has been blocked until further notice either pursuant to court orders or on the directions issued by the Department of Telecommunications”.

So now not only websites that violate Omani law are blocked in Oman, but even websites that violate Indian law will also be blocked in Oman. This is surely unacceptable, because even though Oman does censor the Internet on its own, India also has had a history of unreasonable censorship of websites that exceeds that seen in Oman, in some instances. For example, the whole of Yahoo Groups was previously blocked, and more recently, the video website Vimeo has also been blocked.

Internet users should have the right to access all websites as long as these websites do not violate Omani law, and it really does not make sense that Omani Web users have to go through the lengthy and cumbersome process of getting each website blocked by the Indian government, unblocked.

The Telecommunication Regulation Authority in Oman should consider policies relating to peering agreements between Internet service providers in the country and those outside, and ensure that such agreements do not impose further content restrictions on the accessibility of the Internet in Oman.

Censorship and Enemies of the Internet

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are listed as Enemies of the Internet in a recent report published by Reporters Without Borders. UAE on the other hand is listed as a country worthy of being under surveillance due to the deteriorating conditions of freedom on the Internet in the country. Oman is not mentioned at all in this report, but does this mean that our Internet is truly free and open?

The Enemies of the Internet report provides a scary overview of how censorship on the Internet was a major issue over the past year. It talks about how Egypt decided to shut off the whole Internet in an attempt to control the riots, Iran’s grand plan for its national ‘Halal’ Internet, China’s use of 50 cents bloggers to spread propaganda on the web, and the US attempt to censor the Internet on grounds of copyright infringement.

International summits now talk about the ‘right to be connected’ as a fundamental right for survival in today’s world, especially as communication blackouts are now commonly used by oppressive regimes to cripple dissenting movements.

Learning about the extreme incidents taking place around the world, especially in countries as close as UAE and Bahrain, makes Oman seem as a relatively more lenient and open environment.
The keyword here is of course ‘relatively’, because the Internet still remains very much censored here as well. Fortunately though, censorship on the Omani Internet is primarily done to block pornographic and similar websites with the aim of protecting society values and preventing minors from being exposed to such offensive content. The process by which websites are filtered is carried out by an automation software that blocks content categorically. Websites can also be blocked on the basis of individual decisions made by authorities. An example of this is the decision to block the blog of Ammar al Maamari, a Omani blogger living abroad who regularly leaks highly confidential information in violation of the law and criticises His Majesty the Sultan and the government in an offensive manner.

Using the method of censorship to ‘protect’ society values might have worked in the early days of the Internet when there was a limited and manageable number of websites online, but there is no practical way of selectively censoring the Internet today when an unquantifiable amount of content is uploaded to the web by the minute.

With all the censorship made by Omantel and Nawras, any person in Oman can still easily do a quick Google image search to be entertained with unlimited amounts of pornographic content. As long as you can connect to the World Wide Web, there will always be a method to access blocked content. Subscribers to RSS feeds of Ammar’s blog did not even realise that the website got blocked because the content of the blog is routed to them through their RSS readers which are not affected by the local censorship. Ammar also created a private mirror of his blog for anyone in Oman to access upon sending him an access request. It is clear that censorship has totally failed from stopping the Omani public from reading Ammar’s blog.

Censorship of the Internet is not a major problem in Oman at the moment, but Oman should be careful not to take the approach taken by some of our neighbours, because it is really necessary for the public to have uncensored access to the Internet for their right to freedom of expression to have any value in today’s world.

Omani Website Blocked As Public Prosecution Investigates Defamation Case

Popular Arabic Omani discussion board Al Al Harahhas been blocked for the past week or so upon the order of the Public Prosecution in response to Al Hara’s failure to provide the Public Prosecution with the IP details of a member who has posted defamatory material of a number of individuals in the past.

I am not aware of the specifics of the content that was posted on Al Harah, but Omani newspaper Al Zaman has claimed that this content is of a political nature and that is why Al Harah has been blocked, the Public Prosecution came out with a Press Release today claiming that the matter is exclusively based on a criminal incident that with no political aspect.

It seems that the Public Prosecution has directly communicated with the administrators of Al Harah asking them to disclose the IP details of the person who posted the offensive material. Al Harah claims that it does not have the IP details of that person due to the fact that the software they use retains IP details for a certain period of time only after which they get deleted. Al Haram claims that it tried helping the Public Prosecution in reaching this person by sending a private message to him through their forum, but he has not responded.

According to the Public Prosecution the webmaster is under an obligation to provide them with all the details they want as Article 27 of the Criminal Procedure Law provides that anyone asked by the officers of a judicial capacity as part of their duties to help in capturing suspects to preventing their escape must provide that help.

The Public Prosecution claims that it could not identify the actual person who runs Al Harah website and the administrators of the website have refused to provide these details to the Public Prosecution and apparently that is why a judicial order was made to temporarily block the website until all the necessary information are provided.

The Public Prosecution is stating that any person who has suffered damage from this decision may complain to the competent court.

It is worth noting that the WHOIS records of Al Harah are protected, so the details of the domain name registrant are not public.

I am not sure to what extent Al Harah has cooperated with the Public Prosecution before the decision was made to ban the website, but I am not sure how banning the website can help in the disclosure of the real owner of the website or the IP details of those who posted the defamatory content. I am not an expert on criminal procedures, but this cannot be said to protect the evidence as the website can still be accessed or deleted completely from the central control panel of the hosting service provider – let alone using proxies, vpns, or even just going as close the UAE to access the website.

I think that it is important for web masters to watch this case closely to see to what extent they have to cooperate with the Public Prosecution before they are held liable for the content published by someone else.

Response to the VPN Regulation Public Consultation

I just sent an email with my response to the TRA’s public consultation paper on the upcoming ban of VPN in Oman. I’m basically suggesting that they make a more precise definition for VPN and introduce an exemption for students to use VPN if they have to.

You can read my response here [PDF].

The deadline for responding to the public consultation paper is September 20th, if you have something to say to the TRA this is your chance to do it.

Private Use of VPN to be Prohibited in Oman

The Telecom Regulation Authority (TRA) has recently published a draft regulation on the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPN) (Arabic text) in Oman. The TRA is seeking public opinion on the matter before passing this regulation as law. The short summary of this regulation is that the use of VPN by individuals will be illegal, a fine of RO 500 will be charged for personal use and RO 1000 for commercial use.

The use VPN specifically wasn’t regulated before, but it could be argued that it’s use has always been illegal as a form of unlicensed encrypted communication. This new regulation makes it clearly an offense to use VPN at home, and allows it only to private and public institution who have to apply for TRA’s approval before using VPN, the TRA also retains to right to object to any grant this approval without provide reasons for this objection.

It it easy to understand why the TRA is prohibiting the use of VPNs as their primary use in this country is to bypass ISP censorship and the prohibition of the use of VOIP. A few also use VPN service to fake their IP location in order to use services offered in a region only (e.g. Hulu).

However, there are companies and institutions that rely on VPN services to conduct their business as security measures and communications with their international partners require the security of VPN network, for this specific purpose the use of VPN by companies will be allowed upon registration with the TRA.

I think there is a small case to argue that the use of VPN is necessary for individuals who study on long-distance programs as some universities offer access to their subscription based educational resources (e.g. Lexis Nexus and Westlaw) and blackboard through university VPN. When I was doing my masters at Southampton university I couldn’t access the university’s VPN when I was in Oman.

According to Article 1 of the regulation VPN is defined as follows: “a private information network  for private use made through the use of connections with a public communications network.”

It should be noted that this definition of VPN is wide and could catch uses which have nothing to do with bypassing the regulation, for example, you cannot establish a VPN to connect to your computer wirelessly through your mobile phone in order to share files between your computer and your phone. It might also cover networks created for multiplayer gaming.

Though a big worry for users of VPN, there isn’t much that can be done about this regulation as it seems to be in accordance with the telecom law and the general censorship policy in the country.

If you have any suggestions to make to the TRA on how this regulation should be amended you can send them an email at fpconsulting@tra.gov.om by the 20th of September 2010.

Omani Freedom of Expression Online

The internet has enabled a lot of people from all around the world to communicate with others and has provided a platform for those without a voice to speak up and reach out for an international audience without any physical restriction, and just as much as it has brought the best of people in terms of creativity and innovation, it has also brought the worst of people as it enabled them to talk freely under the cape of anonymity.

I do not think that I am the only one who said some really strange things to people online which I will never dream of saying to their faces in real life. A visit to any public discussion board on the internet would show you how much people swear at others, make fun of them, and even maybe harass them. Many people forget that there are human beings behinds these nicknames with feelings that could get hurt.

The concept of freedom of expression is pretty new to the traditionally conservative Omani society, and the sudden explosion of opportunities opened by the web led some to assume that freedom of expression means that they have the right to say whatever they want, just because they can, without thinking about the consequences, but the truth is that there is nowhere in the world where freedom of speech is an unlimited right, because no matter what personal right a person has, it must not infringe on the rights of others.
In Oman, and many other countries, this right is restricted by some other legal principles such as defamation and breach of confidence. Defamation is generally defined as the act of spreading false information about a person which could harm that person’s reputation. This law is much stricter in Oman than in some other places like the UK or the USA as defamation is a criminal act and not merely a civil matter. In addition to this, there is no clear requirement in the law for the statement to be false for it to be offensive but merely requires it to have the consequence of damaging that person’s reputation.

Freedom of expression is further restricted by the law of the breach of confidence, if a person receives any information with a clear expectation to keep that information in confidence, that person would be under a legal duty not to disclose that information to anyone else. This is a general principle that applies to all sorts of information whether it was a private issue told between friends or a serious confidential document delivered in a professional capacity, for example, the medical records of a patient.

These two are examples of the most obvious restrictions to freedom of expression on the internet or otherwise, but are not the only ones, in Oman, the Telecommunication Law also provides for a number of other restrictions such as prohibiting the transmission of harmful and untruthful messages through any means of communication.

The perception of the internet as an unregulated medium that allows people to say anything they want is far from true, the legal system covers a wide number of instances where speech on the internet could be punishable, and with the development of new methods for tracking the visitors of a website, it becomes not too difficult to enforce these laws on the internet.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.

Internet Censorship

The internet in Oman has developed a great deal in recent years, we now have fast speed internet spreading across the country and we have an extensive reach of high speed wireless internet as well. However, the way the content of this internet is regulated and censored did not see much of a development since the Internet was first introduced in the 90s.

Oman is one of the more liberal and tolerant countries in the Gulf and no major websites such as YouTube, Flickr, or Facebook were ever blocked. The recent report on internet censorship issued by the OpenNet Initiative found that there is no evidence of any political Internet censorship in Oman and the majority of Internet censorship is made on social and cultural grounds, for example, hacking and pornographic websites are usually blocked, but websites that criticize government officials are not. The government usually uses legal methods, such as criminal law to deal with issues of defamation and breach of confidence to hold authors accountable for what they write. However, the government will not block their website.

The aim of the censorship process is to protect society values and help prevent minors from being exposed to pornographic material. The process by which such websites are selected and blocked is arranged by an automation software that is operated by Omantel. This software is expected to use a number search and indexing methods to know which websites to block.

Using the method of censorship to help “protect” society values might have worked in the early days of the Internet when the number of websites was small and manageable, but we now live in an age where the Internet is massively expanding every second due to low cost for hosting websites and the expansion in user-generated content. It is now impossible to be able to block all pornographic websites when there are hundreds new of them being created every single minute.

The result is a failing system that cannot logically protect us from all pornographic websites, instead, the automated nature of censorship leads to overblocking clean websites that have no offending content. There are also a number of specialist users who need access to websites that may include “offending content”, such as nudity, for medical or research purposes – but such users cannot access these websites here due to the fact that they are classified as offending websites.

The regulators should admit the fact that such censorship is not a solution, anybody can do a Google image for porn right now to be entertained with loads of offending materials. The internet is expanding as we speak and there is no way to “block” it at the top yet allow people to use it efficiently as the same time.

If it is society values which we aim to protect, then we should educate parents and families on how to use software protection shields on their own computers to protect their kids from accessing any offending websites or restricting their access to a limited number of websites to visit. Specialist users and students should be able to have the option to have unfiltered internet if they would like to access websites that feature nudity for legitimate purposes.

The OpenNet Initiative Report on Oman

internetaccessoman
(Photo credits: squacco)

The OpenNet Initiative, a partnership between the University of Toronto, Harvard University, the University of Cambridge, and Oxford University, has published last month an annual report on filtering and surveillance of the Internet in Oman.

The report summarizes the factors that contribute in censoring the internet including the legal framework and Omantel’s terms and conditions. The report concludes that censorship in Oman is primarily made on social basis as it focuses on pornographic, homosexual, and anti-hacking websites, but does not necessarily involve political censorship. The report claims that Omantel uses American-made censorship products such as SmartFilter.

The report also claims that the Omani government monitors “private communications, including mobile phones, e-mail, and Internet chat room exchanges, and interrogates chat room users who are critical of government officials or policies by tracking them through their ISP addresses”. The report cites as its authority on this fact the US State Department Human Rights Report that was published in March 2008.

The report is very interesting, but it has a number of inaccuracies (the majority of the websites mentioned are not actually blocked), cites irrelevant cases to support some points (the Omania case was a defamation case and had nothing to do with surveillance), and makes no mention Article 61(4) of the Telecom Law and the recent case of Ali Al Zuwaidi.

However, the report still paints a very general idea in the situation in Oman and how people are pushed to self-censor themselves even though the constitution guarantees the right of freedom of speech. You can read it via this link.