Online Privacy – A Fundamental Right For Oman

Privacy on the Internet is more important to us than ever now that all of our photographs, phone numbers and the location of our every single move are all recorded and shared by many web services.
Privacy is not considered as a fundamental right in Oman for which each individual has an entitlement to, unlike the freedom of expression, the freedom to practice religion, and many of the other freedoms provided for in the Basic Statute of the State.

There are a few instances where a limited right of privacy is protected by the Omani law such as the guarantee to maintain the confidentiality of communications, the protection of the sanctity of family life from violation by technological means such as camera equipped mobile phones, and the protection against misuse of personal data by institutions regulated by the electronic transactions law.
These limited instances of the protection of privacy are not a substitute for the protection of privacy as a wider concept, which can be violated through electronic and traditional means and without necessarily disclosing that information to the public.

Private information is now extremely valuable to companies as their knowledge of our habits and personal details can help them target potential consumers. Many companies now try to collect as much personal information about us as they can, and this puts us at a risk when they collect this information without our knowledge or when they do not handle this information with care while dealing with extremely sensitive information about us such as our health and medical conditions, family life, and business transactions.

Attempting to draw a clear scope for the right of privacy is not as easy as it sounds due to the fact that this right needs to be balanced against the security interests of the state in acquiring information in order to avert crimes. These interests are legitimate, but they are not always applied reasonably. For example, the telecommunication law in Oman prohibits the use of any encryption method without acquiring the prior permission of the minister for that use. This provision is unrealistic and has no practical value because we use encryption on the Internet to do many simple daily tasks such as checking our online banking account, paying our bills, and even sending messages using Gmail.

There are some legislative issues in the area of privacy in Oman, but there is little that local legislation here can do to mitigate the risks of the violation of privacy on the Internet due to the fact that the majority of web businesses do not have any presence in Oman and therefore will not be bound by the laws of this country.

We as individuals must take precaution when giving out our information on the Internet. We need to familiarise ourselves with the privacy aspects of the services that we use and must be aware of how much information we are sharing because it is impossible to retract information we share publicly once it gets on the Internet.

January 13, 2013  Leave a comment

Copyright Exceptions in the UK

The UK government has announced its plans to widen the scope of copyright exceptions in its law, to allow the public to copy more works without the need to acquire the permission of the author.
The copyright law is not meant to provide authors with an absolute right over their creations, but it aims to provide them with sufficient rights so they have an incentive to create new works, and have these rights balanced against society’s right for fair access to these works.

A lot of people around the world believe that copyright law has lost touch with the reality of how the public consumes copyright works. However, due to the influence major corporations have over many of the legislative systems around the world, the copyright law has continued attempting to impose more and more restrictions on how copyright works can be used by the public, even if these rights are rarely respected.

In a move uncommon nowadays, the UK government has announced that it plans to issue a new legislation that will reduce the scope of protection of copyright law. This will provide users with more rights for using some copyright works, without the need to acquire the prior permission of the owner of the copyright.

The UK copyright law already has some exceptions to copyright protection, such as those that allow users to copy some works for criticism and review, and those that allow copying for the purpose of private non-commercial research.

The new copyright exceptions to be introduced by the UK will allow copying for a number of different purposes. One of these exceptions will allow the owner of a legitimate copy of copyright work to make additional copies of that work, to be able to use the work on a different device.

Another exception will allow copying a work to create a parody or caricature. Some of the new exceptions will expand the scope of existing rights such as the exception for private study and research and the exception for reporting news and current events.

Some of the ‘soon to be legal’ acts emphasise how ridiculous the copyright law currently is in some instances, such as the fact that an explicit exception has to be included in the law to allow a user to rip off music from a CD he legally bought, to play that music on a portable music player. Creating such a copy without permission from the author is technically an infringement of the current copyright law, even though nobody ever got prosecuted for it.

The introduction of these new exceptions is a positive move for the development of copyright law in the UK, but it will not solve many of the other more serious problems with the copyright law. These include the fact that protection is granted automatically to all works created by anyone, regardless of whether or not the author desires to have that protection, the fact that the protection lasts for an unreasonable amount of time, and the unnecessary and ineffective protection of technological protection measures applied to copyright works.

It is also worth noting that legislative changes to the UK copyright law will still not provide the UK with a general copyright exception similar to the fair use principle found in the US. The US fair use exception is a general exception that allows the judge to look at the nature of the copying instance and then decide, based on its facts, whether or not the usage is fair. The UK exceptions will not allow the judge to excuse an instance of copying, even if it is fair, if that specific use is not explicitly mentioned in the law.

Even with all the limitations of the soon to be introduced exceptions in the UK, the fact that copyright law is being changed to become less restrictive is a good development for copyright law. Unfortunately, the law in Oman is similar to the UK in its restrictive nature and does not, in fact, still allow for many of these exceptions proposed by the UK government. It would be helpful if we can learn from their experience when we consider updating the law here.

December 30, 2012  Leave a comment

Status of Voip Remains Uncertain in Oman

Eight months have passed since the Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA) has decided to unblock many of the Voice over IP (VoIP) services widely available on the Internet, but Skype still remains blocked with no official statement clarifying the current status of VoIP in Oman.

VoIP is not technically a banned service in Oman, but the TRA requires any company that wishes to provide such a service in the country to apply for a licence from the TRA and abide by all the rules and regulations of the telecom law. There are some companies which are licensed by the TRA to provide VoIP service in Oman, such as Nawras, which provides a number of dial-in services for making VoIP calls to certain countries.

The TRA had traditionally blocked all forms of VoIP services from being accessed by users of the Internet in Oman. The most famous of these services is Skype. The TRA argues that it will not allow Skype to operate without acquiring a license in Oman to protect many public interests such as the protection of consumers, the support of the employment of Omanis, the collection of tax and the enforcement of the state security requirements.

These justifications cannot be taken seriously because the same arguments can be made against all other forms of online businesses and communication tools, such as Amazon or Gmail, but nothing other than VoIP had been categorically blocked. It is widely believed that the decision to block Skype has been made to protect the financial interests of local ISPs who make a lot of profits by charging their users for international phone calls.

Earlier this year, the TRA ordered telecom companies to unblock certain VoIP services such as Viber, Google Talk, FaceTime, and others, but not Skype. There was no legal change in the regulation of VoIP in Oman, and the TRA has not made any official statement as to why it has chosen to unblock these specific services.

Rumour has it that the TRA is considering removing the technical restrictions for blocking access to VoIP operated by foreign companies and that it is testing the impact of the allowed services before unlocking everything else. However, more than half a year has passed now and an official statement is yet to be seen.

The topic of VoIP regulation has recently come back to the forefront as Microsoft has decided to discontinue its Live Messenger and integrate the chat functionality of it in Skype. Live Messenger is a popular application in Oman and the inability of people to communicate with their work partners, family and friends using Messenger could be an issue to these people.

The TRA needs to make up its mind on the VoIP matter. Many parents now rely on Viber to communicate with their children who are studying abroad. It is also not unlikely for some small and medium enterprises to consider using the currently available VoIP services to facilitate their business operations. Having these services blocked again can easily devastate many.

December 16, 2012  Leave a comment

New UAE Cybercrime Law – Webmaster Liability

UAE passed a new cybercrime law that has been criticised for its apparent attempt to restrict freedom of expression, but this law also happens to introduce a new mechanism to limit the liability of webmasters for content published by third parties.

The first cybercrime law in UAE was passed in 2006 which criminalised a lot of acts on the Internet relating to fraud and the misuse of technology. The new law that was passed early this month introduced many new offences that relate to the use of technology to organise unauthorised protests, receive unauthorised donations, attempt to overthrow the government, and mock the rulers of UAE. The new law also provides for many other general offences such as those relating to terrorism, violation of privacy, and the trafficking of drugs or persons.

The reaction to the new law has been mostly negative as many see it as an attempt to restrict the freedom of expression in the UAE to a new level. I believe that these claims are exaggerated because the new law did not in reality add any new offences in relation to freedom of expression that did not already exist in a general form in other legislations in UAE. For example, attempting to overthrow the government has always been an offence in UAE whether technology was used in that attempt or not. The new law is merely a confirmation of existing principles.

On the other hand, a new interesting feature of the new UAE law which has not yet been highlighted is a provision specifying that a webmaster will be liable for any illegal content that he is aware of on his website. However, if the webmaster is not aware of such content, he would be liable for it only if he does not remove that content upon receiving a notification from the authorities informing him of the illegality of that content.

This is a good step for providing webmasters, such as owners of forums and bloggers, with some comfort that they will not be held responsible for the comments published by users of their website. The authorities previously had an expectation that a webmaster should be held liable for every single comment posted on his website, whether or not made by him, as he is the owner of the website and is in a position to moderate these comments.

This was an unrealistic approach because moderators of popular websites cannot practically pre-approve every single comment published on their website and it is unreasonable to expect a webmaster to be able to make a legal assessment of the content published by others on his website to decide whether or not that content violates any law.

The fact that a webmaster will not be held liable for content he is not aware of will of course not change his liability for any content that he publishes himself regardless of whether or not he knows that this content was illegal. The provision also does not change the position of the liability of the person who posts illegal content on the website of another person. The webmaster of a website will also be reasonably expected to assist the authorities in identifying the offending person upon receiving such an order from a competent authority.

This new provision is a great improvement for webmasters, but it is still far from perfect as the authorities can abuse this system to order a webmaster to remove any content from his website which may not necessarily be illegal, and the webmaster is likely to abide by their notice to escape any potential liability.

Even with the opportunity of abuse, this new addition is better than the current position in many other Gulf countries, including Oman, where the law seems to suggest that a webmaster is strictly liable for all content on his website whether or not he was aware of it.

November 18, 2012  Leave a comment

Blocking Innocence of Muslims Serves No Purpose

Innocence of Muslims is a ridiculous film that is probably made with no objective other than offending Muslims worldwide. However, blocking its access in Oman serves no purpose at all.
The film has caused riots in many countries as it mocked Prophet Mohammed and portrayed him in a manner that offended Muslims all around the world.

Violent riots took place in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and the American Ambassador to Libya was killed in attacks made by fanatics angered by the film. There is no doubt that the controversial film is offensive, but there is still no justification for the violence or the death of innocent diplomats as a response to the film. A number of Muslim countries, including Oman, decided to attempt blocking access to the YouTube video showing the film from within each of these countries.

I do not understand what the purpose is behind blocking this video. It cannot logically be an attempt to make sure that the people in Oman do not see the video and therefore not get offended and take violent actions in response. It is impossible to stop the public from watching the video because it has been uploaded to a million websites already and there is no way to block each individual link to the video. People have already downloaded the video and are sharing it on Whatsapp, Facebook, and many other services for sharing content. People are not going out of their way to watch the video because they want to be offended.

They are doing this because they want to know what the fuss is all about and they want to be able to make the decision for themselves on whether or not the video is in fact offensive. Blocking access to the video in Oman does not achieve anything, instead it mistakenly portrays Oman as a backward, volatile country that cannot tolerate a lame video made by a hateful person.

The irritating part about this story is that the video in question is a mediocre production that could be mistaken for a homemade video by a high school student and should not be worth the time we spend discussing it. Blocking access to such a video could be a start of a new trend where ISPs would feel that they have to block any video made by any person making fun of Islam or the Prophet.

Protecting the sanctity of religion is important, but freedom of expression is an important pillar of society as well. We should teach our people that we can be tolerant instead of ‘protecting’ them from the opinions of other people. We need to learn that it is okay for others to have different points of view, and we must have the right to access information and make our own judgements as to what is appropriate and what is not, because censorship surely is not the answer.

September 23, 2012  Leave a comment

Jordan’s New Web Laws

Until recently, Jordan had been a great example of how an Arab country can have a liberal approach for regulating the Internet in a manner that aims at promoting innovation and the development of web culture. This might soon change if Jordan decides to pass the new amendment to its publication law that will treat websites like traditional paper publications.

Jordan had taken a progressive approach in regulating the Internet as the Internet has remained unfiltered for a long period of time and individuals have been free to start any website they wish without the need to satisfy any formalities. This has enabled the web in Jordan to mature quicker than in other countries in the region and foreign tech companies such as Google and Yahoo established offices there.

This situation might change as some Jordanian activists started rallying the government to censor pornographic websites on the Internet as they believed that it is the government’s duty to do so. Surprisingly for a country in this region, the government of Jordan was hesitant to impose any technical censorship filters, and instead responded to the demands of the public by offering a free filtering software that families can install on their own personal computers to limit the access their children had to websites on the Internet. The Telecom Regulation Commission of Jordan eventually gave in to the demands made by the protesters and issued orders to local ISPs to figure out mechanisms to start censoring websites.

The Jordanian Cabinet has also recently approved a draft proposal for amending the Jordanian Publication Law that will subject news websites to the same rules that apply to regular paper publications in Jordan. This amendment will require any website that publishes news and articles about Jordanian foreign or internal affairs to register with the government and acquire a licence before it can legally operate, and the website must also employ an editor who is a member of the Jordanian Press Association.

The new amendment will also have additional provisions that address websites specifically such as a new provision that explicitly makes the website admin liable for all content on his website and that the website admin must maintain a record of all comments made on the website for a period not less than six months. The Cabinet approved amendment will still need to be approved by the Jordanian Parliament before it will officially be passed as law.

These new developments in Jordan surely cannot have a positive impact on the development of the Internet in Jordan. The Internet is censored in a majority of other Arab countries and this censorship surely does not work because you can still have access to pornography even without the need to use any circumvention method such as a VPN.

It is not logical to apply the same formalities that apply to the traditional press. It will be impossible to enforce these rules, especially as the difference in the impact made by a proper news website and that of a personal blog of an individual is getting extremely nominal.

The future is still not totally bleak for Jordan, as opposing activists are trying to raise awareness in Jordan about the benefits of keeping the Internet free from censorship and the fact that the new law proposal will still have to go through the Parliament before it gets officially passed.

It is unfortunate that the Internet in Jordan is facing all these challenges. Let’s hope that this does not set an example of other countries in the region to impose further restrictions on the Internet in their own jurisdictions.

August 26, 2012  Leave a comment

Spam Soon To Be Banned in Oman

The Telecommunication Regulatory Authority has finally decided to address the issue of spam in Oman and is now in the process of drafting new regulations that will make it illegal for anyone to send unsolicited advertisements by any electronic method in Oman without acquiring prior consent from the person to whom the advertisement is sent.

Spam has been slowly growing into a problem in Oman due to the realisation of many companies of the ease at which advertisements can be pushed to a large number of people at extremely low costs. Many companies see this as an opportunity to promote their products, but from the point of view of consumers, this constitutes a breach of their privacy and can affect the way they use e-mail and SMS. These messages can be extremely repetitive, irrelevant, sent at inappropriate times, impossible to block, and make it very difficult for users to reach messages that they need to read, when their inbox is filled with unsolicited spam advertisements.

The current law in Oman does not provide individuals the right to stop others from sending them unsolicited advertisements. The telecommunications law only prohibits offensive, untrue or harmful messages, and not genuine advertisements that were sent without consent. The Basic Law of the State is the closest document we have in Oman to a constitution. It guarantees many rights for individuals such as the right for the freedom of expression and right for religious freedom, but it does not guarantee privacy as a right for individuals in Oman.

A report by Symantec last year, claiming that Oman had the highest percentage of spam messages in the whole world coming into the country, led the TRA to make statements soon after that it will work on combating spam. TRA is now working on new regulations for combating spam that will make it illegal for any person in Oman to send advertisements by any electronic method to anyone without acquiring the explicit prior consent of that person, and anyone who violates these new regulations may be fined up to RO1,000.

TRA will consider a message to be spam message for which the sender will be penalised, even if only one message was sent to one person, as long as that message was an unsolicited advertisement. The only exception to this rule is when an existing relationship can be established between the sender and recipient, such as the relationship between a hospital and patient. Even in such circumstances, individuals will have the right to have such messages stopped and an offence would be committed if a message is sent after an individual has indicated his wish to not receive any more of these messages.

Even though it will be impossible to stop all spam messages coming into the country, it is a great development for Oman to have in place local regulations that ban the transmission of spam in the country and one which would help ensure that local companies do not participate in this unacceptable practice. It will also surely provide us consumers with great comfort knowing that we can use our e-mail accounts more efficiently and that we can finally stop these ridiculous SMS about the latest gym discounts.

The public consultation period for new spam regulations had just finished last week. It is unknown how long it would take TRA to issue these regulations, but when they do come, these regulations would surely fill a serious gap in the telecom regulatory framework in Oman.

July 29, 2012  Leave a comment

Public Consultation on Anti-Spam Regulations

The TRA has finally decided to take action about the spread of spam in Oman and is seeking public consultation about their upcoming anti-spam regulations [PDF].

The new proposed regulations will require businesses to have the explicit consent of any person to whom they send a commercial message using any medium. The regulations will provide an exception for institutions that have an existing relationship with a person and will enable individuals to have the right to stop receiving such messages.

The TRA is proposing a system where an offense would be established even if only one message has been sent without consent, will provide individuals with the right to complain to the TRA, and will provide the TRA with the right to impose sanctions that include imposing a financial penalty not less than RO 1000.

The regulations will also provide guidelines as to the content of the message, its size, and will require the header to include words such as “Commercial” or “ad”.

These regulations are still in the public consultation stage and there is no guarantee that they will be officially passed.

You can read the PDF document issued for public consultation at this link. The last date for submitting your opinion on these documents is the 25th of July.

July 19, 2012  Leave a comment

Indian Censorship in Oman

If you are a fan of Bollywood films and happen to be a user of Omantel’s home broadband service, you might be surprised to find that a number of websites that cover such films are blocked in Oman, not because the Omani government has anything against them, but because the Indian government has decided that such websites need to be blocked.

Censorship in Oman is not as big a problem as it is in some of the neighbouring countries. The most irritating aspect about censorship in Oman is the restriction on VoIP services such as Skype, but no other major website such as Blogger, Wikipedia, YouTube, or Flickr is blocked in the country.

Censorship in Oman is about to get unpredictably complex as a report by the OpenNet Initiative has found evidence of the inaccessibility of a number of websites in Oman due to the routing practices of Omantel.

According to the OpenNet Initiative, Omantel has signed a number of agreements with an Indian Internet service provider for traffic peering that allows Omantel and the Indian service provider to share their traffic with the intention of improving the performance and reliability of the service provided by both ISPs. This means that when a user in Oman attempts to open a website, his request might be routed from Omantel to the Indian ISP and then to the Worldwide Web.

An unintended consequence of this practice is that an Omani user will not be able to access a website if it is blocked in India and Omantel decided to route that request through the Indian ISP. For example, an attempt to visit absongs.com and desimusic.com from an Omantel connection would come up with a page that says, “This website/URL has been blocked until further notice either pursuant to court orders or on the directions issued by the Department of Telecommunications”.

So now not only websites that violate Omani law are blocked in Oman, but even websites that violate Indian law will also be blocked in Oman. This is surely unacceptable, because even though Oman does censor the Internet on its own, India also has had a history of unreasonable censorship of websites that exceeds that seen in Oman, in some instances. For example, the whole of Yahoo Groups was previously blocked, and more recently, the video website Vimeo has also been blocked.

Internet users should have the right to access all websites as long as these websites do not violate Omani law, and it really does not make sense that Omani Web users have to go through the lengthy and cumbersome process of getting each website blocked by the Indian government, unblocked.

The Telecommunication Regulation Authority in Oman should consider policies relating to peering agreements between Internet service providers in the country and those outside, and ensure that such agreements do not impose further content restrictions on the accessibility of the Internet in Oman.

July 15, 2012  Leave a comment

VPN For Security?

The legal status of VPN in Oman still remains a grey area. The telecommunications law prohibits the use of any method of encryption without acquiring an explicit permission from the government beforehand, but this law has no practical implication because encryption is a fundamental aspect of the Internet. Without it we cannot log into our e-mail accounts, pay our bills online or check our online banking services.

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a method by which a computer can securely connect using a public connection to a private network located elsewhere. Once a connection is established to the VPN, the administrator of the public connection cannot have any control over what content is delivered through the VPN to the remote computer and cannot monitor or intercept any of that traffic.

VPNs are regularly used by companies to connect their branches to their head office, thus ensuring that their communications remain secure. VPNs are also used by consumers all around the world to ensure that their connections are secure when using untrusted public connections such as those available in cafes, hotels and other public venues.

The authorities in Oman do not like VPNs because using a VPN circumvents all the censorship and regulations imposed over the Internet. If you connect to a VPN using a local ISP such as Omantel or Nawras, you can view any website, even if that website is blocked by the local ISP which you are using to connect to the VPN. Using VPNs also allows users in Oman to connect to blocked services such as Skype.

In 2010, the TRA sought public consultation over draft regulations that would have made VPN totally illegal for private use and would have required establishments to acquire a license from TRA to use VPN for commercial use. These draft regulations never materialised and the feedback the TRA received about them was never published.

While it is understandable that TRA would not be happy to have the public circumvent all the restrictions that it imposes on the Internet by using a VPN, it would be unreasonable for TRA to ban the use of VPN for private use. This is because using VPN in certain situations is fundamental towards ensuring that the user is protected from Web criminals and identity thieves.

It is extremely common for people to log into public networks in cafes and hotels, and using a VPN in these circumstances can be the only guarantee that your connection would not be compromised by the administrators of these networks or by anybody else who manages to take control over that network. Taking such precautions in certain countries where there is a high risk of Internet scams is a serious necessity, and it is not logical to stop consumers from taking such precautionary measures.

Instead of making more futile attempts at censoring the Internet, TRA should accept that this is an impossible task to accomplish. The position of the law in regard to encryption as it stands is pointless. TRA should focus on improving the Internet and providing us with rights that guarantee that our privacy will be protected instead of creating more barriers to connecting with the rest of the world.

June 3, 2012  Leave a comment

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