Spam Soon To Be Banned in Oman

The Telecommunication Regulatory Authority has finally decided to address the issue of spam in Oman and is now in the process of drafting new regulations that will make it illegal for anyone to send unsolicited advertisements by any electronic method in Oman without acquiring prior consent from the person to whom the advertisement is sent.

Spam has been slowly growing into a problem in Oman due to the realisation of many companies of the ease at which advertisements can be pushed to a large number of people at extremely low costs. Many companies see this as an opportunity to promote their products, but from the point of view of consumers, this constitutes a breach of their privacy and can affect the way they use e-mail and SMS. These messages can be extremely repetitive, irrelevant, sent at inappropriate times, impossible to block, and make it very difficult for users to reach messages that they need to read, when their inbox is filled with unsolicited spam advertisements.

The current law in Oman does not provide individuals the right to stop others from sending them unsolicited advertisements. The telecommunications law only prohibits offensive, untrue or harmful messages, and not genuine advertisements that were sent without consent. The Basic Law of the State is the closest document we have in Oman to a constitution. It guarantees many rights for individuals such as the right for the freedom of expression and right for religious freedom, but it does not guarantee privacy as a right for individuals in Oman.

A report by Symantec last year, claiming that Oman had the highest percentage of spam messages in the whole world coming into the country, led the TRA to make statements soon after that it will work on combating spam. TRA is now working on new regulations for combating spam that will make it illegal for any person in Oman to send advertisements by any electronic method to anyone without acquiring the explicit prior consent of that person, and anyone who violates these new regulations may be fined up to RO1,000.

TRA will consider a message to be spam message for which the sender will be penalised, even if only one message was sent to one person, as long as that message was an unsolicited advertisement. The only exception to this rule is when an existing relationship can be established between the sender and recipient, such as the relationship between a hospital and patient. Even in such circumstances, individuals will have the right to have such messages stopped and an offence would be committed if a message is sent after an individual has indicated his wish to not receive any more of these messages.

Even though it will be impossible to stop all spam messages coming into the country, it is a great development for Oman to have in place local regulations that ban the transmission of spam in the country and one which would help ensure that local companies do not participate in this unacceptable practice. It will also surely provide us consumers with great comfort knowing that we can use our e-mail accounts more efficiently and that we can finally stop these ridiculous SMS about the latest gym discounts.

The public consultation period for new spam regulations had just finished last week. It is unknown how long it would take TRA to issue these regulations, but when they do come, these regulations would surely fill a serious gap in the telecom regulatory framework in Oman.

Non-English Domain Names Not A Smart Move

The legal status of VPN in Oman still remains a grey area. The telecommunications law prohibits the use of any method of encryption without acquiring an explicit permission from the government beforehand, but this law has no practical implication because encryption is a fundamental aspect of the Internet. Without it we cannot log into our e-mail accounts, pay our bills online or check our online banking services.

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a method by which a computer can securely connect using a public connection to a private network located elsewhere. Once a connection is established to the VPN, the administrator of the public connection cannot have any control over what content is delivered through the VPN to the remote computer and cannot monitor or intercept any of that traffic.

VPNs are regularly used by companies to connect their branches to their head office, thus ensuring that their communications remain secure. VPNs are also used by consumers all around the world to ensure that their connections are secure when using untrusted public connections such as those available in cafes, hotels and other public venues.

The authorities in Oman do not like VPNs because using a VPN circumvents all the censorship and regulations imposed over the Internet. If you connect to a VPN using a local ISP such as Omantel or Nawras, you can view any website, even if that website is blocked by the local ISP which you are using to connect to the VPN. Using VPNs also allows users in Oman to connect to blocked services such as Skype.

In 2010, the TRA sought public consultation over draft regulations that would have made VPN totally illegal for private use and would have required establishments to acquire a license from TRA to use VPN for commercial use. These draft regulations never materialised and the feedback the TRA received about them was never published.

While it is understandable that TRA would not be happy to have the public circumvent all the restrictions that it imposes on the Internet by using a VPN, it would be unreasonable for TRA to ban the use of VPN for private use. This is because using VPN in certain situations is fundamental towards ensuring that the user is protected from Web criminals and identity thieves.

It is extremely common for people to log into public networks in cafes and hotels, and using a VPN in these circumstances can be the only guarantee that your connection would not be compromised by the administrators of these networks or by anybody else who manages to take control over that network. Taking such precautions in certain countries where there is a high risk of Internet scams is a serious necessity, and it is not logical to stop consumers from taking such precautionary measures.

Instead of making more futile attempts at censoring the Internet, TRA should accept that this is an impossible task to accomplish. The position of the law in regard to encryption as it stands is pointless. TRA should focus on improving the Internet and providing us with rights that guarantee that our privacy will be protected instead of creating more barriers to connecting with the rest of the world.

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.

My Website Got Blocked by Omantel

Censored

In Oman, the currently only Internet Service Provider in the country, Omantel, has the ability to block any website it desires, we assume that this is done to censor pornographic websites and websites that attack the current government. We do not know if this is an automated process or one manually managed by actual employees of the company. I am not sure on what legal basis it has this authority to censor website because I do not have access to all the laws from here.

Anyway, sometime last week, I discovered that my website, myITLawyer, got blocked by Omantel making it inaccessible from Oman. I do not know when exactly in got blocked because I have been away from the country since the beginning of this year. Once Omantel blocks a website, there isn’t anything really that you can do about it other than send an email to an account called “admin@omantel.com”. I did that, but instantly the email bounced back indicating that it could not reach a certain recipient.

I decided to make a complaint to the Telecommunication Regulation Authority as it is responsible for receiving complaints against ISPs. Its Consumer Guide specifies that you have to give the operator 15 days to resolve the issue before you make a complaint. During this period, I asked a friend of mine in Oman to call Omantel and tell them (1) to unblock the website, and (2) that their email account has a problem. There is no special line that you can call to solve censorship issues, the help desk person offered no solution other than “to send a message to the specified email account” even though we told him that messages bounce back. After I heard this from my friend I sent another email to that account and the message again bounced back.

When the 15 days passed I sent my complaint to the TRA who responded after one business day saying that they forwarded the complaint to Omantel and that they will look into the issue. A whole week passed, my website remained blocked, and I haven’t heard from anything, I emailed the TRA again this morning, and then responded within hours saying that my website is now unblocked, and now it is. Of course I never heard ANYTHING from Omantel at all during this period.

It took me exactly ONE MONTH to get my website unblocked since the day I sent my first email to Omantel. I expect that it had already been blocked for a month before I discovered it.

Currently, the only way to have your website unblocked if it gets blocked by Omantel is to follow the procedure I followed, if the TRA did not solve my problem my next step was to take legal action against the TRA at the Administrative Court.

I cannot believe how ridiculous this censorship business is. In October last year Omantel blocked Gmail, Blogger, and a number of other Google websites by mistake. Imagine the damage blocking Gmail did to businesses and individuals. My website was blocked for a whole month in which I obviously had to continue paying for hosting. It is unbelievable that Omantel seems to be totally unaccountable and has absolute authority to block and unblock whatever it wishes randomly.

In the age of user generated content attempting to censor the internet is just totally useless. Anyone in Oman RIGHT NOW can use any search engine and find a porn blog in less than 5 minutes, you don’t need to be a computer genius to do it and it is IMPOSSIBLE to censor everything when a new site is created every second.

It is just unbelievable.

Network Operators in Oman Oppose Sim Locking

Oman Sim Lock

In May 2009, the TRA issued a issued a public consultation on the regulatory position on mobile sim locking. The current position in Oman is that sim locking practices are not allowed. The TRA issued a paper asking the public’s opinion on the matter. The TRA’s initial opinion seems to support allowing sim locking as that could improve the mobile market. It feared that this might lock customers into specific networks, but suggests that the solution could avoided through the following:

  1. Creating an obligation on operators to continue to provide connection packages without handsets for those who do not want a bundled connection.
  2. Creating an obligation on operators to inform customers of the contract details.
  3. Create a maximum cap on the lock period that does not exceed one year.
  4. Create an obligation on operators to provide early termination terms.

Surprisingly, all operators who responded to this consultation paper opposed allowing sim locking.

Renna, Oman’s first MVNO, opposes the practice of sim locking because (1) they believe that handsets locks could be easily broken and (2) that smaller players (like Renna) won’t be able to match the prices offered by bigger companies through subsidy.

Nawras opposes sim locking on the grounds that it shift the focus from competing on service price and quality into a competition on handsets. Nawars claims that handset subsidies are usually used in immature markets as a “catalyst to improve the uptake” of mobile services (which is obviously not true because it is the normal practice in mature markets like USA and UK), that it will increase customer acquisition cost, it will make the market less transparent, and that customer choice will “ultimately be restricted by virtue of” the contract commitment period.

Oman Mobile also opposes sim locking, though not as absolutely as Renna and Nawras saying that “Sim Locking implementation in Oman at this stage will not necessarily achieve the main objective of ensuring” customers choice. Oman Mobile is of the opinion that this might delay the introduction of new handsets as that will be in the hands of operators instead of consumers.

On the other hand, all non-corporate respondents seems, including the Oman Association for Consumer Protection, seem to support the initiative and think that it will be in the interest of consumers.

I personally think that introducing sim locking would be in the benefit of consumers. Currently, mobile handsets are very expensive in Oman and the iPhone has not been released in Oman, probably because no mobile operators from Oman approached Apple.

Whether or not the sim lock could be broken is not buy itself a huge problem, the benefit of the lock to the operator is usually in ‘locking the customer’ into the network for the contract period, whether or not the phone gets unlocked the customer will still be under an obligation to pay up his monthly charge. Fear of defaulting customers could be minimized by introducing qualification requirements in a way comparable to the way a bank loan is granted – (even Oman Mobile made that comparison in its response). This could be further minimized by requiring a deposit from new customers that is claimed back within six months.

There is no doubt that the introduction of sim locking will not be in the interest of smaller players like Renna as they will not be able to easily compete against bigger player like Oman Mobile as they will subsidize the prices through mass purchases, but it can also be using as a great marketing technique by acquiring exclusive mobile phone deals (e.g, the iPhone on AT&T).

There is a risk that the market can become way too dependent on phone subsidies in the sense that mobile phone manufacturers could eventually find it hard to sell mobile phones if no network operators wishes to sell that phone, but that can only act as a market force that pushes manufactures to make phones good enough for operators to pick, instead of saturating the market with crappy devices.

You can read all the responses here.

Our Right for Domain Names

Individuals in Oman are allowed to own real property, postal addresses, mobile phones, and emails, but not domain names. There is no justification for this prohobhition.

I wrote an article for the Times of Oman about the right of individuals to register domain names in Oman. You can view the article at the Times of Oman or you can get the PDF version of the article from here.