The United Arab Emirates (UAE) seeks to establish itself as an economic and technological leader in the Middle East, encourages Internet use for this reason, and yet blocks its citizens from accessing a substantial number of Web sites. The UAE government extensively blocks content that it considers objectionable for religious and cultural reasons, though not, apparently, material related to political dissent. The state’s policy-makers have sought to resolve this tension by instituting an Internet filtering system based upon the SmartFilter commercial blocking service. Of the 8713 URLs that the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) tested in UAE, we found 1347 blocked (15.4%). Compared to most other countries in the world, UAE’s filtering is extensive.
The news media, the sole Internet service provider (ISP), and Internet-based content providers in the UAE all face stringent legal controls on expression and access to information. The sole ISP, Etisalat, is owned by the state, which makes filtering a substantially easier proposition than if many private ISPs served the state’s citizens. These protective measures, carried out through filtering processes and other forms of enforcement, are geared toward protecting political, moral, and religious values of the UAE and have considerable popular support. According to one survey, more than half of UAE’s citizens agree that Internet censorship is an effective measure to protect family members from objectionable content.
The UAE uses the SmartFilter filtering software to block nearly all pornography, gambling, religious conversion, and illegal drugs sites tested. The state also blocks access to all sites in the Israeli top-level domain. ONI’s testing of the UAE filtering regime also found blocking of sites on the Bahai faith, Middle East-oriented gay and lesbian issues, and English-language (though not Arabic-language) dating sites. While our results did not indicate that UAE uses its filtering system to block political sites, or news and media sources, we conclude that the state’s broad content controls unintentionally block information unrelated to UAE’s stated goals. The imprecision of the UAE filtering regime underscores the difficulty of extensive technical filtering of Internet content.