18 Aug 2019

VPN and VOIP

Authored by: Hadef & Partners, Sector Groups

In brief:

  • A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a connection method which replaces a user’s initial IP address with one from a VPN provider, thereby ‘masking’ the user’s true location.
  • Use of VPN services in the UAE is not technically prohibited, as long as use of the VPN is not for an illegal purpose.
  • Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is essentially a phone service over the Internet.
  • VoIP service providers (other than Etisalat or du), can legitimately provide VoIP services to users in the UAE, if the use of VoIP falls within the exceptions to the use prohibition in the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority’s Policy.

The terms VoIP and VPN and their technical meanings can be confusing, as can their surrounding regulation in the UAE. But it is important for businesses to understand how they might use these connectivity tools to ensure they are compliant with local law.

VPN

A VPN is a private network that extends across a public network, like WiFi hotspots and the Internet, enabling users to send and receive data across shared networks, as if their devices were directly connected - kind of like a secret tunnel.  The key feature of a VPN is that it lends you a temporary IP address and hides your true IP address from every website or email you connect with, making web access safer through private routing.  VPN services add privacy and security to both public and private networks, and offer significant benefits to users, especially in the protection of sensitive data.  

In terms of the legislation in the UAE governing VPNs, Federal Law No. 5 of 2012 Combating Cybercrime (as amended) (Cyber Crimes Law) stipulates that a user can be penalised (by a fine and/or by imprisonment) for using a fraudulent computer network protocol address by using a false address or a third-party address or by any other means for the purpose of i) committing a crime or ii) preventing its discovery.  So, using a VPN itself is not illegal. To be illegal, the use of the “false/third party IP address” (made possible with use of a VPN) needs to have been for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing discovery of a crime. 

The matter then to be considered in the use of VPNs is whether the purpose constitutes a crime in the UAE. Here, breach of a person’s privacy is a crime, as is gambling, for example, so, in particular, international businesses operating in the region, who may not be familiar with the criminality of certain behaviour (which in their own jurisdiction is perhaps not illegal) ought to pay attention to the local rules.

It would not be advisable for example to permit your business personnel to use a VPN service in the UAE to access content which has been in some way restricted in the UAE, since this would not likely be considered to be a legitimate/legal use of VPN services in the UAE. If such content is prohibited in the UAE, the use of the VPN service to access it would not be permitted.

VOIP

VoIP are the services and technologies that allow the transmitting, receiving, delivering and routing of voice telecommunications over the Internet.  The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) Policy on Voice over Internet Protocol (the Policy), clarifies the TRA’s position as regards the provision of VoIP services in the UAE.  The Policy provides that only those issued with a licence can engage in or conduct a ‘regulated activity’ in the UAE, and that the provision of VoIP services is such a regulated activity in the UAE. 

Presently there are only two telecom licensees in the UAE, namely Etisalat and du, who are thereby permitted to provide VoIP services. There is, however, one exception to this, which is that it is possible for another VoIP service provider to legitimately provide VoIP services in the UAE, if its use satisfies the exception to the restrictions on VoIP use under the Policy.   

The Policy and its restriction on use of VoIP in the UAE does not apply to VoIP services used exclusively over a “Closed Group Network”, that is, VoIP services used exclusively over a telecoms network which is operated exclusively for the benefit of users of that network, which users are either i) employed by or are a part of one entity or group of entities with common ownership, or ii) are connected, related or associated with each other for a ‘Public Interest Purpose’, beyond the mere exchange of telecommunications. 

“Public Interest Purpose” is defined by the Policy as i) an educational purpose, or a purpose for the benefit of research or education at an academic institution within the UAE, or ii) for the sole benefit of one or more UAE federal or local governmental entities.

A Closed Group Network must not be interconnected with any other Closed Group Network or a public network in such a way as to allow real time voice communications to be carried out between a user connected to or on the first Closed Group Network, and a user connected to or on either the second Closed Group Network or a public network.  Furthermore, calls on a Closed Group Network must originate and terminate in the UAE, unless its users are connected, related or associated with each other for a Public Interest Purpose, and the Closed Group Network exists solely for such Public Interest Purpose, in which case, calls could be cross border.

A business which, for example, had a number of offices across the UAE and wanted to make use of VoIP services for the purpose of inter-group communications between its staff in the UAE, could legitimately use a VoIP service to facilitate this, including one where the provider is neither Etisalat nor du, provided the relevant Closed Group Network was ‘isolated’, and not connected to another network. Where that business, and the purpose of the communications was educational, for research for the benefit of a UAE institution, or for the benefit of the UAE government, the communications would neither have to be inter-group, or originate and terminate in the UAE, to fall outside of the TRA restriction on VoIP use in the UAE.

For more information, please contact us on sectors@hadefpartners.com.