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Deliberate blocking, "accidental" blocking and filtering all pose threat to online free expression, says RSF

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders is concerned about online free expression in the United Arab Emirates following recent comments by leading Internet sector officials. The spokesman for the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), which oversees the UAE's Internet, said on 17 October 2008 that the authority was considering "deliberately blocking" access to part of the social networking website Facebook.

The warning came just five days after access to one of the country's most popular blogs, Mujarad Ensan ( "Just a Man": http://mujarad-ensan.maktoobblog.com ), was blocked by the UAE's leading Internet Service Provider, Etisalat, because of its content.

"We regret that the UAE is falling into the trap of trying to control online content by means of all-out filtering or blocking websites without explanation," Reporters Without Borders said. "It is nonetheless one of the few countries to have an electronic press code. We urge Etisalat to unblock the Mujarad Ensan blog and we call on the TRA to ensue that the Internet does not fall victim to overzealous officials, as filtering is dangerous for free expression."

Access to the Mujarad Ensan blog was blocked on 12 October, the day after its author posted an entry entitled "Let's laugh together: our economy is doing well," in which he analysed the impact of the US sub-prime crisis on the UAE.

Some of the Facebook website's pages are currently inaccessible in the UAE. According to the TRA, there are 13 categories of "objectionable" content that include violation of the "public interest," offence to "decency, public order and national security" and attacks on "social harmony" and Islam.

The TRA spokesman said on 17 October that, since most of Facebook's content violated these rules and since the TRA did not have the technical resources to censor just the objectionable content, "the competent authorities could block access to the entire site." The TRA already blocked access to Internet telephony (VoIP) providers such as Skype ( http://www.skype.com ) in 2006.

The UAE authorities use SmartFilter, a US-made software programme, to filter websites for religious, political and sexual content. The TRA reported on 18 October that the website of the Kuwait-based daily "Arab Times" had been "accidentally" blocked by automatic filters deployed by Etisalat. This filtering method is also used in Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, which are both on the Reporters Without Borders list of "Internet Enemies."

Under articles 15 to 20 of a cyber-crime law that took effect in the UAE in 2006, an Internet user can be imprisoned for online "opposition to Islam," insulting any religion recognised by the state or contravening "family values and principles."

For more information, visit: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=29017

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