Politics, porn and iPlayer: Why Arab VPN use is on the rise

VPNs can allow internet users access to prohibited sites. (File photo: Shutterstock)

An afternoon spent surfing subversive political sites, watching internet porn, and then sitting back to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones...

That may sound like an unlikely use of the web in the Arab world, given the widespread censorship, as well as geographical restrictions on online content.

But for a growing band of VPN users in the region, it’s just another day on the internet.

Infographic: Censorship redundant?

Infographic: Censorship redundant?

Infographic: Censorship redundant?

Virtual private networks, widespread in the business sphere, are increasingly being used among residents of the Arab world, providers say.

Such networks establish a private, encrypted data connection, and allow users to sidestep local censorship rules while disguising their online identities.

For example, an internet user in Qatar or the UAE could use a VPN to access online pornography, avoiding blocks on sites imposed in many Arab countries. VPNs can also allow access to outlawed political sites, certain social media services and other blocked content.

Services range from free VPNs such as Hotspot Shield, as well as paid services that typically cost $5 to $10 a month, or less with an annual subscription.

Some make it appear that an internet surfer is in a country of their choosing, enabling them to gain access to web services that are only accessible in certain geographies.

For example, an internet user in Saudi Arabia could use a VPN service to watch TV shows on the BBC’s iPlayer service, which is only available in the UK and a handful of other countries.

Defeating censorship?

Internet censorship is rife in the Middle East. Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia were ranked as the “top 10 most censored countries” in a 2012 report by the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

“Iranian authorities maintain one of the world’s toughest internet censorship regimes, blocking millions of websites, including news and social networking sites,” the CPJ said in its report.

In the face of such censorship, VPN firms report increasing usage in the Middle East region, boosted by regional upheavals during the Arab Spring. Some say that downloads rise in direct proportion to censorship.

Hotspot Shield, for example, said a recent temporary ban on Twitter in Turkey was followed by a surge of 270,000 downloads from Turkish users within 12 hours. Before the ban, there would typically be 10,000 downloads in Turkey per day, the Wall Street Journal reported.

That followed previous surges in Hotspot Shield use during the Arab Spring, notably in Egypt after the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak curtailed use of several social media sites.

qaradawi reuters

qaradawi reuters

Global VPN provider Golden Frog told Al Arabiya News that use of its VyprVPN service continues to rise in the Middle East, adding that it now has users in practically every country in the region.

“The Middle East is a very strong region for VyprVPN, and one where we have seen some our fastest growth over the last year,” said Sunday Yokubaitis, president of Golden Frog. “A personal VPN allows users to break out of internet censorship and bypass content blocking by the government.”

Yokubaitis mentioned five Muslim countries that rank among its 20 most popular markets: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Pakistan, the UAE and Iran. But Golden Frog also claims “significant downloads” from Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt and Israel.

PureVPN, another provider of virtual private networks, reports a growing user base in the Arabian Gulf. Uzair Gadit, co-founder and director of PureVPN, said the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain all rank among its 20 biggest global markets.

“The trend for VPN usage overall worldwide is on the rise… [In the Gulf, growth] is slower than the Far Eastern and Central Asian regions, but it’s still significant and on rise,” Gadit said.

The VPN service PrivateInternetAccess.com also reports growing use in the region. “With users in Egypt, the UAE, and many other countries, we can confidently say we’re one of the most popular VPN services within the Arab world,” a representative said.

Government response

Yet several service providers report their own websites being blocked in some countries – highlighting the fact that VPNs are somewhat less popular among regional governments.

Yokubaitis says the Golden Frog website is blocked in Iran, although its services still work there. Tests in the UAE showed that the website was blocked on an internet connection via provider du, but accessible via an Etisalat connection on a mobile device. Many other VPN websites are blocked in the UAE, according to Al Arabiya News research.

Aside from blocking VPN websites, some governments have attempted to “identify and block” the actual services they provide, Yokubaitis says. Golden Frog has a product called Chameleon, which it says “counteracts” this problem by disguising the way data is sent over VPNs.

“The Middle East is a region that will continue to grow for Golden Frog. The launch of Chameleon was very important because it lets users defeat government censorship, while still keeping the service fast and stable,” Yokubaitis says.

“As you saw from the recent attempted government censorship of social media sites in Turkey, citizens in the region are familiar and comfortable using personal VPN services.”

Legal implications

Yet could using a VPN land you in trouble?

In a market like the UAE, the law prohibits VPNs if they are used to commit or conceal a crime, legal experts say.

“Article 9 in the UAE’s Law No.5/2012 on Combatting Cyber Crimes makes it an offense to use ‘a fraudulent computer network protocol address by using a false address or a third party address’ for the purposes of committing or concealing a crime,” said Dino Wilkinson, partner at the Norton Rose Fulbright legal practice in Abu Dhabi.

Potential uses of VPNs include gaining access to blocked gambling or outlawed pornographic sites, Wilkinson added. To the extent that these acts are criminal offences in the UAE, the cybercrime law could be used to pursue offenders if they are hiding such activities behind a VPN, he added.

“The focus of this type of legislation is generally on prohibiting larger-scale serious IT crime such as hacking or denial of service attacks,” he said.

Wilkinson said that it is highly unlikely the UAE law would be construed to pursue expatriates using VPNs to access online TV services.

“I am not aware of any particular enforcement actions being taken or contemplated by authorities on this type of benign personal use,” he said.

“I think there would be a bit of uproar among expats if they were stopped from watching Eastenders or the equivalent from their home countries.”

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 13:52 - GMT 10:52
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