According to a recent report from ArsTechnica UK, the UAE has imposed a new ban on any VPN programs that citizens within the country try to use to connect to online services that the government deems a “crime” to use.
These include many of the VoIP services that migrant workers in the country use to communicate with friends and family back home, including Snapchat, Viber, and WhatsApp. Only three other services are being whitelisted for use: Skype, Etisalat, and Du, the two latter of which are companies that are owned and operated within the UAE.
The freshly drafted legislation says that, “Whoever uses a fraudulent computer network protocol address (IP address) by using a false address or a third-party address by any other means for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery, shall be punished by temporary imprisonment and a fine of no less than Dh500,000 [£100,000] and not exceeding Dh2,000,000 [£400,000], or either of these two penalties.”
Although it’s the knee-jerk reaction to assume this is just another in a long line of moves to stifle free speech and personal privacy in the region, the details of the bill tell a different story. 88% of the UAE’s population is currently comprised of migrant workers, many of whom can’t afford to use paid VoIP services. The law looks to have been proposed in a move to funnel more profits to the UAE VPN providers Etisalat and DU, both of which charge exorbitant rates to call out of the country and aren’t able to compete fairly with the free VoIP provided by options like WhatsApp and others.
For now, Skype is still a viable alternative for UAE residents who need to find a cheap way to phone back home, but it’s likely only a matter of time before further bills are passed to squash out the rest of the competition completely.