The UAE President, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, recently announced an update to the Cybercrime Law that was originally passed in 2012. The penalties for using a VPN to commit a crime have been toughened quite a bit. Residents of the UAE now face jail time and fines up to Dh2 million ($545,000) for improperly using a VPN. The lines are grey when it comes to unblocking sites like Netflix and popular international channels that are geo blocked in the UAE. Is this in violation of the law? You can bet that using a VPN to access gambling sites or view porn is a violation. How about using unapproved VoIP services like Skype or WhatsApp?
Here’s an excerpt from the updated Cybercrime Law:
“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 Dhs 500,000 and not exceeding Dhs 2,000,000, or either of these two penalties.”
Impact on VPN and VoIP Usage
We have been researching the topic over the past few days to see where the lines are likely to be drawn. The answer is no more clear than it was the first time we read the new provision to the law. What is clear is that users in the UAE are continuing to download VPN and VoIP apps in record numbers. According to Emirates 24/7, VPN apps made up 2 of the top 10 and 4 of the top 20 Android app downloads in the UAE. Not to be left out, VPN was also represented in the top 5 iOS app downloads for July. What does that mean? Since we’re far from the UAE, we will assume that local residents know the realities of the new Cybercrime law better than outsiders.
Those stats were for July. How are VPN and VoIP apps fairing in early August? Let’s take a look. We connected to a VPN server in the UAE and viewed the top free Android apps. It wasn’t hard to find several VPN and VoIP apps in the list. Let’s start with the most popular VPN apps in the UAE:
VPNs made up 5 of the top 27 free Android apps. The numbers are even more impressive for VoIP apps:
As you can see VoIP apps make up 4 of the top 10 Android downloads. WhatsApp Messenger, imo free video calls, Facebook Messenger, and Skype are all in the top 10. Why mention the VoIP apps? Because they are technically blocked in the UAE. That means users continue to turn to VPN as a means of communicating with loved ones around the world. This is no surprise since there are so many expats in the UAE. The question is how much impact the updated Cybercrime Law will have on users. So far the app downloads speak for themselves.
Not to minimize the impact of the new law. While the lines aren’t clear, the resulting penalties are quite harsh. Please consider whether or not you want to chance it. Especially in the short term. In time we will learn more based on the enforcement of the law. In the meantime, if you decide to go ahead and use a VPN you can view our Top 10 VPN page for a list of good options. Be careful using free VPNs. It’s very risky to place your trust in a free VPN service. They often include ads, track usage, and some have been linked to far worse.