WhatsApp Can Land You in Jail in the UAE

WhatsApp, the popular voice and messaging app, has not been greeted with enthusiasm in the United Arab Emirates. Not. At. All. In fact, if you use it the wrong way, by, say, including profanity in your communications, you can look forward to doin’ a hard-time beef, as they say up in the clink.

WhatsApp, which was acquired by Facebook last year for $16 billion, claims more than a billion mobile downloads, more than 450 million active business and consumer users, and has more than a million users joining every day. That’s a huge customer base—indicative of its ease of use and entertainment value in connecting with friends. Short chats, emojis and so on make it easy to telegraph one’s moods. But it’s that pesky say-anything aspect that threatens the social norms for the UAE, apparently.

Cue the jailhouse blues: One man was recently convicted for swearing at a colleague on WhatsApp, and ordered to pay a fine of $800. That may seem excessive, but wait, there’s more: Emirates247 reports that the Federal Supreme Court in the country has overturned that lower court’s sentence—for being too lenient.

Prosecutors are asking for a retrial and a conviction with a $68,000 fine and prison time.

That’s right: They want to send him up the river. Hard time, baby. In the joint. The slammer. The pen. The pokey.

Let’s hope he looks good in orange, or whatever color is the new black in the UAE.

It’s all part of a snazzy new federal law outlawing swearing online. Violators can get three years in jail, deportation if a foreign national, and face up to $140,000 in fines.

The ban extends to the visual, as well: Criminal defense lawyer Abdullah Yousef Al Nasir told news outlet 7DAYS that according to the cybercrime law, anyone who sends the middle-finger emoji featured on WhatsApp (and which will be coming with the Windows 10 operating system too) can land in jail and be forced to pay tens of millions of dollars in fines.

“Sending a middle finger emoji on a smartphone or even sending a middle finger picture through email can put you in trouble,” he said. “It's an insult in the UAE and the law can punish you.”

This isn’t the first time that WhatsApp has angered the UAE powers-that-be. For instance, earlier this year it added VoIP capability for voice calling—and has consequently been banned by mobile phone carrier (and political influencer) Etisalat. A large percentage of its users use the app—circumventing the carrier’s voice toll services. And its response has simply been to disallow its users from using it.

It should be noted that censorship in the form of over-the-top (OTT) bans is not unusual in the UAE. For instance, in February, news broke that the region was banning OTT VoIP services. Skype for one confirmed that both its website and its services have been experiencing blocks. And, students at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus have also reported that their ability to make computer-to-landline calls using Skype has been curtailed.

Daniel Hanratty, the support site lead at the NYUAD Campus Technology Center, told the university’s student newspaper in New York that, “There’s no definite time for how long [Skype] has been blocked,” and, “blocking has been happening on and off for a year or so now.”

The paper also reported that the WhatsApp messaging service may also be censored in the country right now, with users reporting “uneven service.” And Viber has been blocked for some time.

For its part, the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority seems unapologetic, and indicated in a statement that it does not consider Skype and its ilk to be legal services because they are operating outside of the UAE’s regulatory framework (and presumably, its fee structure).

Referencing the Viber ban specifically, it said, “We have recently seen local newspapers and social networks publishing news with regards to the Viber service being blocked in the UAE. We would like to clarify that the service was never licensed in the UAE. Moreover, the VoIP regulatory policy has only licensed Etisalat and du, The Licensees, to provide telecommunication services in the UAE, including VoIP services. This policy still exists and has not been amended.”

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