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Posted on September 6th, 2010 by Stuart Turton

Dubai’s dubious internet “censorship”

UAE FirewallIt’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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24 Responses to “ Dubai’s dubious internet “censorship” ”

  1. Steve Cassidy Says:
    September 6th, 2010 at 9:48 am

    I do hope, young Stuart, that you are not about to discover the subtle but important difference between censorship, and logging.

     
  2. Bluespider Says:
    September 6th, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Can’t you get bits cut off over there for being naughty?
    And I’m not talking about malformed packets…

     
  3. toby Says:
    September 6th, 2010 at 10:25 am

    Firstly Stuart, Welcome to Dubai and dont worry the summer is coming to an end and we’ll soon be able to drink outside again.

    I am amazed that you got any kind of sensible answer from the ISP, they are know to be more responsive on twitter then over the phone here.

    As for internet access and speed, the firewall is only there to appease the religious schools as a token gesture. Use of VPN’s to circumvent the firewall is rife here if only to get iPlayer.

    And while we may be on fiber, remember that we are only connected to the rest of the world by 4 shared submarine comms cables and it has been know for 3 of them to break simultaneously.

     
  4. Stuart Turton Says:
    September 6th, 2010 at 11:34 am

    Hi Toby, your point about the religious schools is interesting. I’ve actually found Dubai far more liberal than I was expecting, so the blocking of web pages came as something of a surprise. Hence the blog.

     
  5. Usman Says:
    September 6th, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    I know your talking about another country but don’t insult others.

    Breaking the law is not a good thing and you should be arrested and be given the harshest punishment possible in a UAE court of law.

    We should have a similar but foolproof system here in the UK.

    This guy thinks hes a smart arse cause he circumvented and hacked UAE internet security.

     
  6. Arthur Norton Says:
    September 6th, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    “…the people of Dubai from gouging themselves on…”
    Do you mean “gorging”?

     
  7. milliganp Says:
    September 6th, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    I notice that #1 on the blocked content list is “Internet Content for Bypassing Blocked Content”. Sounds a little recursive.

     
  8. Greemble Says:
    September 6th, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    @Arthur:
    Gouging on the thorns.
    You need to read the whole sentence, ol’ chap.

    @Usman:
    What law is that, then?
    While there maybe a token firewall to ‘protect’ the citizens, is there a law stating it must not be by-passed?

    By the way, it’s been circumvented, not hacked – and we do have a similar system here in the UK

     
  9. Greemble Says:
    September 6th, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    When did that happen? Who’s doing the moderation?

     
  10. John Says:
    September 6th, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    Oh give me break Usman! A healthy disregard for authoritarian behaviour is the very reason we are able to live in a free and functioning democracy in the first place. The very fist time I ever ate a T-bone steak was about a week after they were (very briefly) banned.

    There are ‘laws’, and then there are ‘LAWS’: Accessing Flickr or Skype are hardly in the same category as burglary, car-jacking or stabbing someone in the face.

    Having said that, I do agree with Steve: I think you [Stuart] should maybe exercise a higher degree of caution when flouting laws in ‘non-Western’ countries, (such as, oh I don’t know, not publishing that fact on a very popular and widely read website).

    Not being stopped or caught immediately is not the same as not being caught eventually…

     
  11. Steve Cassidy Says:
    September 6th, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Uh, Usman… seems to me the UAE owe him a debt of gratitude for pointing out how their own companies and people are undermining their efforts. And I’m not quite clear who you think he is insulting, exactly – very likely the content blocker company, but who is to say if they are from the UAE or the UK or wherever?

     
  12. Lomskij Says:
    September 7th, 2010 at 9:31 am

    Guys, please! Do not feed the troll.

     
  13. Niall Says:
    September 7th, 2010 at 10:33 am

    I’m a clean living individual, and I prevent myself from accidentally falling over curious shapes on the internet by using K9 on my own computer.
    I’m also a compulsive liar.
    However, I do take full responsibility for the computer I provide for my housemate’s daughter, which DOES have K9 on, and seems to work very well at stopping items which we don’t want her to see until she fully understands the word “choice”.
    Having come across similar internet restrictions in Oman, it did make me wonder about the real nature and purpose of such restrictions. Surely it can’t actually be to restrict people from questionable content, because the methods they put in place are always so poor.
    @Usman – While we’re on the topic of standard grade English, it’s “you’re” not “your” in your first post.

     
  14. Niall Says:
    September 7th, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Caveat : Of course, for real “clean living” souls who don’t wish to take any responsibility for censoring themselves (or their children), I guess having a govt run fireblankie… er… firecurtain, makes life a little easier and takes 2% less resource on their computer :-) .

     
  15. Pinero Says:
    September 8th, 2010 at 6:18 am

    @Niall – Fireblankie describes the Dubai system perfectly :)

     
  16. Mustafa Bir Says:
    September 8th, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    @usman – we’re adults. We don’t require other adults to vet those things we do that harm no one.

     
  17. Alex Says:
    September 9th, 2010 at 10:48 am

    I lived in Dubai for four years (2001-2005) and just used a HTTP proxy. Everyone knew about them. I’ve gone back since then and Etisalat (the telecoms monopoly, they now have ‘competitors’ but they’re all state owned too through a bunch of holding companies, so it amounts to the same thing) seems to have blocked them but when I was there last summer I managed to use Tor ( http://www.torproject.org ) to get around it.

     
  18. Simeon Beresford Says:
    September 9th, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    ridiculing a government by revealing a list of sites to bypass their Internet blocks seems to me a good way to get those sites closed

     
  19. Alex Says:
    September 10th, 2010 at 12:23 am

    You’d think so, wouldn’t you?

     
  20. Cameljockey Says:
    September 23rd, 2010 at 8:34 am

    “In Dubai most homes are fibred from the get go.” – Is that the same Dubai that I live in? This is completely wrong.

    “in Dubai, ….. the internet works” – Yes when submarine cables are not cut for several weeks leaving a whole country at speeds where even web browsing is painful, let alone using business vpn’s, gaming, etc. Also, I have been here for six years and there is still no way to get a fixed IP address in a residential property. Also, try a test of their efficiency; order a simple 4MB connection on a POTS line. They will take your money and ‘install’ it without even checking if the line was suitable (of course it’s not). Then you will try for close to a year to get the ISP to understand that they should never have accepted the order, and try to get your money back (no refunds here…). Also..I could go on. And on.

     
  21. MindSmith Says:
    September 27th, 2010 at 7:01 am

    Thanks for the heads up Stuart, we will now work on blocking access to Lamnia’s IP address range and the rest. It may also interest you to note that technically you’ve admitted to bypassing UAE proxies in violation of the telecoms law, and bragged about it publicly…not so smart eh?

    Ps:we checked, and your neighbour’s name is not Nora :-)

     
  22. Dubai Dude Says:
    July 18th, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Everybody here uses VPN to get on “nice” sites or to Skype home, or at least expats all do. I don`t think the VPN (the connection, not the site) can be blocked as easy as with a proxy. I`m using this: http://www.highspeedvpn.com/ right now and it never got blocked, and probably never will. That`s just paranoid people thinking. In the worst case some VPN sites may get blocked, but there`s always a way around that to get on the VPN site and place the order.

    BTW, really funny how the tech girl recommended you to install Hotspot Shield :) .

     
  23. Toby Says:
    March 20th, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Hi, Glad I found this post. I signed up with Lamnia VPN for only £2.99 . I think your prices on here are a bit wrong as their prices are less than 8 quid. Anyway thanks again it’s brilliant I don’t have to sit through Eastenders with the misses I can now disappear with my laptop.
    Can’t recommend Lamnia VPn high enough excellent.

     
  24. Mohammad Says:
    September 1st, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    It is just part of the arab psyche to build moral walls and make sure to have a few holes to the other side. these are sometimes literal like the bridge from KSA to Bahrain in order for the Saudis to drink and party on the weekend. The same is true for my country Jordan which recently banned bars and liquor stores to open up on streets with holy names even though most of the prostitution happens in Mecca and Madina streets whose intersection is aptly named “intersection of the holy places” It is precisely at this intersection where much of this unholy behavior happens. so it’s not that authorities are inept in censoring, it’s just that the point of censorship is to alleviate the Arab man/woman’s need to do their holy duties and not to actually censor

     

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