Is it illegal to use a VPN in the UAE?

VPN services can be an extremely useful tool not only for gaining added privacy online but also for accessing more content. With a VPN, you can access geo-restricted foreign services, blocked news content, and other restricted services unavailable in the UAE. However, depending on what you decide to unblock, you could be breaking the law.

Currently, there is some confusion regarding the legality of VPN use in the UAE. So, what is the actual legal status of UAE VPN use? And is it legal to have a VPN installed on your devices?

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have many legitimate uses and are often employed by businesses around the globe to allow employees to access work servers remotely. For this reason, it is almost impossible to enforce a blanket ban on VPN technology.

The UAE is no different, and while there are some reasons that VPN use could get you in trouble, the use of a VPN itself is not actually an offence.

This means you are free to subscribe to a VPN and you can install the VPN software on your devices. The act of installing a VPN to use it to access geo-restricted content like Netflix US is not an offence - and doing so will not get you in trouble. 

If you are using a VPN for anything other than committing a crime, you are not breaking the law.

Unfortunately, even websites that belong to VPN providers are now being blocked by ISPs in the UAE. This can make it hard to actually get hold of a VPN subscription and VPN software. In addition, not all VPNs work even when you do manage to get a subscription (particularly if you are an Etisalat subscriber).

On the other hand, it is worth noting that we have never heard of anybody being arrested or fined for accessing a VPN website or using a VPN to access legally permissible services and content.

Most people agree that the UAE is primarily interested in arresting terrorists, blackmailers, people who sell bulk VoIP access, and citizens who commit serious crimes. The general consensus is that you are safe to use a VPN as long as it has a kill switch and obfuscation.

How can I get in trouble with the law?

In the United Arab Emirates, the government implements blocks on all websites that provide access to content that is deemed incompatible with local laws, morals and customs.

When trying to access a restricted website, Etisalat customers are served the following notice:

This site is blocked ... The site falls under the Prohibited Content Categories of the UAE's Internet Access Management Policy.

This message is served whenever somebody attempts to access pornographic websites, for example, which are subjected to strict blocks for religious reasons. Dating, gambling, and other culturally or religiously offensive content is also blocked. Israeli and Qatar websites are also sometimes restricted, for example. 

Some people mistakenly believe that those restrictions are decided by ISPs such as Etisalat and Du (which are both majority controlled by the government). However, the reality is that all censorship is decided by the Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA), which provides precise guidelines to ISPs like Etisalat regarding what to block.

In addition, the UAE has a state-owned telecommunications firms. To preserve profits for those companies, the government enforces blocks on VoIP services that would allow citizens to make free calls.

Using a VPN to access any of the content or services that have been purposefully restricted by the TRA is technically against the law. Thus it is the act of bypassing those restrictions - as opposed to using a VPN - that would get you in trouble. The problem is that using a VPN may raise suspicions even if you are not using it to access that specific content.

Unfortunately, using a VPN to do something completely innocent could theoretically cause you to be flagged as a potential trouble cause. This is why we generally recommend people only use a VPN that has strong security and privacy features that will allow subscribers to conceal their VPN use completely from their ISP (obfuscated servers and a kill switch).

What is the punishment for using a VPN to unblock content in the UAE?

If you decide to use a VPN specifically to unblock gambling, dating, adult websites or other TRA-restricted content, you are using your VPN for a purpose that is technically against the law and this could get you in trouble. So, what exactly are the punishments that you could incur?

UAE authorities monitor people who use the internet closely to pinpoint citizens who purposefully access pornography and other blocked content. If you are discovered using a VPN to access immoral content, you could end up being sentenced to jail for at least six months or you may have to pay a fine of between 150,000 and 1 million dirhams.

The law states that a fine of 2,000,000 AED or prison may be handed to anybody who uses obfuscation technologies to get a false IP address with the intention of committing a crime.

Even people who accidentally stumble on inappropriate content could potentially get in trouble in the UAE, which is why it is essential to be extremely cautious while surfing the web. Google Safe Search is enabled by default for all web searches in the UAE, in an effort to prevent this mishap.

It is worth noting that a VPN can actually help with this. By encrypting your traffic so your ISP can no longer track it, it becomes impossible for them to know what websites you are visiting. This reduces the potential for you to get in trouble for stumbling on “illegal” websites.

However, please remember that using a VPN 24-hours per day could make it too obvious that you are using a VPN. For this reason, it is probably sensible to create some regular VPN traffic each day - to keep your IP address appearing like any other regular UAE home. 

Is it illegal to use a VPN to unblock VoIP apps?

Yes. The government controls the local telecoms infrastructure in the UAE and does not want to lose profit by letting people make free calls online. This is why Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, and other VoIP programs are restricted.

Unblocking and using VoIP services with a VPN is technically against the law and if you are caught doing so, you could face fines.

Since self isolation began because of COVID-19, the government of the UAE has come under pressure to ease its VoIP restrictions so that people can work from home during the lockdown. This has led the government to lift its restrictions on the use of Microsoft’s Skype for Business and Google Hangouts. 

Zoom, which is being used by teachers to carry out remote classes, has also been made available. However, it is not clear whether those allowances will be revoked again once the lock down period is over.

Anybody who unblocks restricted VoIP services does so at their own risk, and is advised only to do so with a VPN that provides strong security features such as a kill switch, DNS leak protection, and obfuscated servers. This will ensure that your ISP is unable to track the fact that you are using one of those restricted services.

However, please remember that VoIP apps usually use small packets at a rate of about 50 packets per second. The size and frequency of the encrypted packets make it pretty easy for ISPs to detect that a VoIP call is taking place inside the VPN tunnel. 

Admittedly, using a VPN with obfuscation will ensure that the ISP and government do not know what service you are using. However, they may be able to easily detect/suspect that you are using VoIP - which might result in you being put on a watch list.

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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