According to a new federal law governing internet users in the UAE, people swearing at others online may be fined up to AED 250,000 and imprisoned, while expats may also be deported. The Federal Supreme Court (FSC) emphasised the new law by overturning two lower court sentences fining a man AED 3,000 for swearing at another on a known social media outlet: WhatsApp. The FSC supported the prosecutor’s appeal and confirmed the need for enforcement of the law that governs information technology crimes, involving a fine of AED 250,000 and deportation from the country. It should be noted that swearing on social media is most likely to be punishable only if the recipient of the lewd text messages complains about them to the authorities and provides evidence to support his or her claim.
Such online regulations are not unprecedented in the UAE. The UAE Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA) previously issued several white papers to highlight the terms and conditions of the most popular social networks in use in the UAE, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Yahoo/Flickr, LinkedIn, Gmail, Microsoft Outlook, Apple Store, Blackberry and Keek. The guidelines provided in the white paper collection prohibit publication of content, which is contrary to public morals, principles of Islam and the social and moral welfare of the UAE or any content that contains irreverence towards Islam and other religions. The guidelines also provide that the content should also respect the UAE Government, its leadership, and ultimately its cultural heritage and social norms. In its white paper relating to Facebook usage, the TRA sets guidelines prohibiting posting content on Facebook that includes hate speech, incites violence, or threatens or contains graphic or gratuitous violence. The guidelines also prohibit pornography, nudity and bullying or harassing others online. Additionally, the guidelines do not allow operation of any application that contains alcohol-related, dating, or other prohibited content.
Furthermore, the guidelines prohibit defamatory use, provide for respecting the privacy of others and set restrictions on tagging other users without their consent as well as the unauthorised use of photographs and videos of other people. The courts have applied these guidelines by rendering monetary orders, jail sentences and/or deportation against offenders in the UAE.
Of particular note is the case of a woman who was fined, briefly detained and then deported after being convicted of a cybercrime under the 2012 Federal Anti-Information Technology Crimes Law No. 5. The law includes amendments to Federal Legal Decree No. 2 for 2006 on cybercrimes and prohibits many acts against privacy including taking pictures of others and/or their property without their consent, posting such pictures on the web and adding insulting phrases. The Defendant took a picture of a car parked across two disabled spaces outside her flat and posted the picture to a closed Facebook page without the car owner’s consent. Following a complaint by the car owner, an investigation by the police and the Public Prosecutor’s office in Abu Dhabi ensued. The Defendant denied posting insulting comments on her post and provided to the police that she had obscured the car’s plate number before posting the picture online. The investigation concluded that the Defendant had violated the law by posting the picture as well as posting insulting and degrading words in association with the photograph. The court convicted the Defendant absentia, fined her AED 10,000 and ordered her deportation. The Defendant’s subsequent appeal was dismissed. (The UAE Telecom Regulatory Authority, June 2015; The National UAE, July 2015).