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Can WhatsApp overcome a VOIP ban in the UAE, now that Expo 2020 is here?

Reports came out that anyone at the Expo 2020 site could, freely and without paying any fees, open WhatsApp and dial video and regular calls. This is against UAE rules and regulations, so what’s up?

People were able to make and take voice calls using WhatsApp and Skype from the Expo site In 2020, the UAE lifted its ban on two VoIP platforms: Microsoft’s Skype for Business and Google Hangouts Article 34 of the UAE Cyber Law can punish the illegal use of VPN with imprisonment and fines

Reports came out that anyone at the Expo 2020 site could, freely and without paying any fees, open WhatsApp and dial video and regular calls.

This is against UAE rules and regulations, so what’s up?

WhatsApp at the EXPO site

Authorities have let people make calls over WhatsApp and other internet apps on the grounds of the Expo 2020.

For years now, most applications using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services have been blocked in the UAE, except for a few such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, which are mostly used for business and remote work meetings, not day to day mobile facing conversations.

Paid apps such as BOTIM, which are permitted for use in the UAE, allow for internet phone calls similar in purpose to WhatsApp.

On September 29, 2021, Reuters reported that people were able to make and take voice calls using WhatsApp and Skype from the Expo site, which will open to businesses and other exhibitors from almost 200 countries on Friday, October 1. WhatsApp internet services appeared to cut off outside the site, according to Reuters.

Is the fact that Dubai will likely attract 25 million business and tourist visitors weighing in on UAE regulatory authorities’ minds? How long will this relaxation of the rules last and will it apply to other emirates? 

The block on calls using the popular WhatsApp, FaceTime, and Skype applications has particularly frustrated UAE residents who were separated from families and friends by restrictions during the pandemic.

The UAE’s two telecoms operators, Etisalat and Du, did enable Microsoft Teams over both wifi and mobile data connections as well as Blackboard, Zoom and CloudTalk.

WhatsApp rules under review

Talks are under way to lift the ban off some VoIP services like WhatsApp and Facetime in the UAE, the cyber security head of the UAE government had previously revealed.

Speaking on the sidelines of the GCC cyber-security conference and exhibition in December last year, Mohammed Al Kuwaiti, the cyber-security head of the UAE government, said WhatsApp had been unlocked for a limited time for test usage.

Al Kuwaiti pointed out that there remain some regulations that need to be considered and the authorities were working on it.

Easing of regulations started in 2020

As early as 2018, there were calls to remove VOIP bans in the UAE.

In March of 2020, calls for the UAE to lift its ban on internet calling platforms like Whatsapp and Facetime grew louder amid the coronavirus lockdown.

The UAE then decided to lift its ban on two VoIP platforms: Microsoft’s Skype for Business and Google Hangouts. It also has made video calling platform Zoom available.

But popular services like WhatsApp, Facetime and Skype remained blocked for voice and video calls, meaning residents typically have to use fee-based services from one of the state’s telecoms providers, Etisalat and Du.

Some tried to use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to access VoIP platforms, but those can carry heavy legal penalties including fines and even jail time. 

At the time, Mahmoud Adi, founding partner of Abu Dhabi-based venture capital firm Shorooq Partners, told CNBC: “The productivity gained from having VoIP, in my humble opinion, is significantly more rewarding for our local economies than the revenue generated for the government from international calls.”

Legal ramifications for using VPN

The usage of Virtual Private Network (VPN) in the UAE is permitted if the VPN is used as per the guidelines of the UAE government and the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA).

VPN may essentially be used by companies, institutions, and banks for internal purposes.

Any other usage of VPN that hides the IP address to get access to websites/calling applications /gaming applications that are blocked by the UAE government is illegal.

Article 34 of the UAE Cyber Law can punish such acts by imprisonment of at least one year and a fine not less than UAE250,000 dirhams ($68,120) and not in excess of ($272,480).

Further, Article 15 of the UAE Cyber Law states that 1-year imprisonment and a fine not less than $41,000 and not in excess of $136,240 will be applied to those who deliberately receive or intercept any communication through any computer network and later discloses the information obtained through illegal reception or interception of communications.

An individual convicted based on the provisions of UAE Cyber Law may also be deported from the UAE, in accordance with Article 42 of the said law.