Dubai's dubious internet "censorship"

UAE Firewall
UAE Firewall

It’s a funny thing censorship, our reaction to it funnier still. I live in Dubai these days, where the authorities consider the internet a big, prickly thing full of porn which is not to be trusted. This is, of course, correct.

In an effort to keep the people of Dubai from gouging themselves on the suggestively shaped thorns of this porn plant, the UAE has locked it behind a firewall. Actually, the wall metaphor is a bit strong. It’s more a pair of ratty, old curtains that have been hastily closed to keep the kids from seeing naked Nora the next-door neighbour. A firecurtain, if you will.

In theory this should prevent clean-living souls from stumbling across illicit content. Illicit content being everything you’d imagine, plus Flickr and Skype oddly. (Click here to see a full list of what the UAE considers to be off limits.) The problem with sticking up a big wall is that people always want to know what’s on the other side. Make the wall higher and sooner or later they’ll find a ladder. Make it higher still, and they’ll find dynamite.

My dynamite was handed to me by my ISP, specifically the young woman who answered the phone when I rang to ask why Flickr was blocked. I wasn’t expecting any sort of sensible answer to this query. I never am when I ring complaint lines. Psychologically they exist alongside that desire to drop stones down wells. I don’t do it because I expect anything to come of it, I just like to hear the splash.

She calmly recommended that I install Hotspot Shield, a free piece of software that ensures your computer flashes a US IP address to any website that comes asking. Unfortunately, Dubai was wise to this particular scam and had blocked the website so I couldn’t download it, along with all other websites offering a similar service. Undeterred, she pointed me towards The Pirate Bay, which somehow remains open for business. I mean how, just how? The UAE has blocked Flickr because there are bottoms on it, and just occasionally, the suggestion of other dangly bits. The Pirate Bay – which offers a range of bottoms to suit every need, including midget and donkey bottoms for anybody having a really slow afternoon – remains blissfully undisturbed.

It boggles the mind. If you’re going to throw up a firecurtain at least do it properly. It’s been a long time since I tried to look at, erm … Flickr in China, but I like to believe that the second you try somebody abseils through your window, kicks you in the unmentionables and shoots out your screen. That’s what censorship should be. That’s censorship we can all get behind. Dubai’s efforts just seem clumsy, like I’m being blindfolded with an eye patch made of cling film.

The very fact that my ISP was telling me how to circumnavigate Dubai’s ridiculously inept restrictions was one thing, the fact that my local friends thought this advice odd only because Hotspot Shield is rubbish, was quite another. They swiftly offered a list of their favourite alternatives, at which point I discovered that when you live behind a wall, everybody has their own favourite shovel.

I haven’t signed up yet, but Lamnia is currently the frontrunner. For eight pounds a month, I get a UK and US IP address letting me access Spotify, iPlayer and Hulu, and browse anonymously. Of course, there’s a performance hit, but that doesn’t matter in Dubai, because the internet works. When I lived in central London my connection was so slow I started to believe the entire thing was a myth. In Dubai most homes are fibred from the get go. My ISP offered me a choice of three internet connections when I signed up: 8, 16 and 32Mbits/sec. They all do exactly what they say on the tin. My 16 Mbits/sec connection, landline, Sky Plus and Sports package costs £50 per month.

The bundle was activated within two days and there’s no download cap or fair-use policy waiting at the bottom of my contract like a tripwire. It’s the strangest thing, but I’m sitting behind a firecurtain accessing a porn plant and I’m finally using the internet the way I always imagined it should be used. I can access any service in any country, download things at a decent speed, and not worry about cracking a glass ceiling nobody told me about.

Ultimately, I’m quite glad the UAE’s authorities block websites, and thrilled that they’re so inept at it. Just like everybody in Dubai, all they’ve done is made me a master of internet chicanery. Censorship, eh? It really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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