A guide to internet privacy in Qatar 2019 - How to secure your data with a VPN for Qatar

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After the UAE, more people in Qatar use the internet than anywhere else in the Middle East. In fact, 96.4 percent of the population has access to the internet.

The Qatari government is not as aggressive about internet censorship as many of its neighbors, but blocks all the things usually banned in Muslim countries. This includes pornography, content deemed to be critical of Islam, and websites relating to LGBT interests.

Criticism of the Emir or Qatari government is illegal, although a ban on criticizing other Gulf countries appears to have been relaxed since 2017 amid growing tensions with its neighbors. Overall, formal political censorship (on or offline) is relatively limited, but most journalists practice self-censorship and avoid reporting on sensitive issues.

Political Overview

In theory, Qatar is a constitutional monarchy, but in practice, it remains an absolute monarchy. The Emir continues to hold all executive and legislative authority, and ultimately also controls the judiciary. The only elections are for an advisory municipal council, and even here political parties are not permitted, so all candidates must stand as independents.

Qatari citizens enjoy some of the highest living standards in the world, but up to 90 percent of Qatar population are not citizens. Noncitizens have no political rights, very few labor rights, and are largely prevented from owning property. Indeed, even when exercising the legal rights they do have, noncitizen workers are at high risk of deportation.

The upcoming 2022 World Cup in Qatar has served to highlight the low pay and harsh working conditions that must be endured by many foreign nationals. Withholding of salaries, contract manipulation, poor living conditions, and excessive working hours are par for the course, migrant woman who work as household maids are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Women citizens in Qatar enjoy more political rights than in many Gulf countries and were enfranchised at the same time as men in 1999. They are not treated equally under the law, however, and suffer both legal and social discrimination in most aspects of life.  Sex outside heterosexual marriage is illegal, and LGBT relationships must be hidden.

A growing rift between Qatar and its former Gulf allies reached a head in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia led a political and economic boycott against the country in response to its ongoing support of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Government Surveillance

Unlike many of its neighbors, Qatar does not perform much in the way of technical internet surveillance.

A 2014 WikiLeaks report Qatar State Security Bureau (SSD) as a customer for FinFisher software, but this requires a highly targeted attack in which the software is surreptitiously installed on a target computer. The only evidence of its use has been to target activists in Bahrain in 2012.

The government-owned Qatar General Broadcasting and Television Corporation do monitor social media, however. Under the controversial 2014 Cybercrime Prevention Law, it can impose a one-year jail sentence, plus a fine, on anyone who publishes information about the private or family life of an individual.

Those who publish false news deemed to jeopardize the security of the state can be jailed for up to three years.

Censorship

By the standards of the Gulf, internet censorship in Qatar is relatively mild. As is to be expected, porn (which is much more broadly defined than in the West), criticism of Islam, sexual health advice, and any content relating to LGBT interests is blocked.

There is in the way of formal little political censorship, however, although journalists, academics, and bloggers in Qatar practice strict self-censorship. The reality is that no-one dares to criticize the Emir or his government, and public discussion of sensitive issues is avoided.

The Doha News independent English-language website has been blocked since 2016, but most international news sites and social media platforms (including Facebook and Twitter) are not.

Many messaging and VoIP apps, on the other hand, are blocked. These include Skype, Facetime, Duo, Viber, and WhatsApp. It is interesting to note that, despite being blocked, the Supreme Council has officially ruled that use of such apps is not illegal.

In theory, VPNs, proxies, and other anti-censorship technologies that can be used to overcome Qatar internet blocks are themselves blocked.

 In practice, many VPN services and the like are blocked, but VPNs are nevertheless are a popular way unblock censored international content. Other than the initial blocks, Qatari authorities appear to have little interest in stopping this.

Copyright piracy in Qatar is a civil, rather than a criminal offense. In practice, ISPs and the authorities do not consider policing it a high priority, although offenders are still liable to court action by copyright holders. What the authorities do care about is downloading of content, which is banned on other grounds. We have read reports, for example, of people getting into trouble for illegally downloading porn. 

Written by: Ray Walsh

Digital privacy expert with 5 years experience testing and reviewing VPNs. He's been quoted in The Express, The Times, The Washington Post, The Register, CNET & many more. 

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