More than four of every 10 UAE residents believe there should be tighter regulation of the internet, a study shows.
Despite restrictions placed by service providers and the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, 42 per cent of residents believe further controls are necessary.
The finding is part of a study by Qatar's Northwestern University called Media Use in the Middle East - an Eight-Nation Survey, which investigated attitudes towards media in the region.
The survey will be released publicly at the International Communication Association Conference in London today.
It questioned more than 10,000 people in the UAE, Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Jordan, and found that although many web users said they supported freedom of expression online, they also thought the internet should be more tightly regulated.
"While this may seem a puzzling paradox, it has not been uncommon for people the world over to support freedom in the abstract but less so in practice," said Everette Dennis, dean and chief executive of the university.
Mr Dennis said the study suggested the UAE was "one of the more progressive countries" in the region.
Of those questioned in the country, 65 per cent thought it was all right for people to express ideas on the internet, even if they were unpopular, compared with just 48 per cent of respondents in Egypt.
Across the region only 47 per cent thought it was safe to express political opinions on the internet, and 38 per cent were worried about governments or institutions checking their online activities.
"I was very surprised that in the face of very heavy internet use and that many believe people should be able to express anything, there was also this reticence from people's sense of privacy and a fear that internet messages can be tracked and traced," Mr Dennis said.
Elsewhere, the survey found 38 per cent of UAE residents agreed with the statement: "In general I feel comfortable saying what I think about politics."
Respondents in Saudi Arabia and Qatar were more confident, with 54 per cent of residents saying they were comfortable. Jordan scored the lowest in this category, equal to the UAE.
But almost half of the respondents in the UAE, 47 per cent, believed it was safe to "say whatever one thinks about political affairs".
Across the region less than half of respondents, 46 per cent, said people should be able to criticise government online.
And almost half believed there is not enough awareness of the "laws, regulations and moralities" that control activities on the internet.
The survey found the internet was overwhelmingly the biggest source of information for most.
In the UAE, 77 per cent of respondents agreed that when they needed information, the first place they went was the internet, and 82 per cent said the internet was an important source for news.
Mr Dennis said the UAE "has much heavier internet penetration to begin with, so clearly it is a very internet-savvy place. In that respect it was one of the more progressive countries we surveyed in terms of optimism for the future".
"The survey does seem to reflect some of the recognisable complexities of the region," said Matthew Reed, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media.
"There is enthusiasm for the possibilities the internet offers for obtaining information and expressing opinion - but this is tempered by more cautious and conservative stances on how the internet can or should be used in practice.
"The very low figures for book and magazine readership in some surveyed countries are quite striking too, and perhaps should be of concern to those hoping to encourage the development of a knowledge economy across the region."
An interactive breakdown of the study can be seen online at menamediasurvey.northwestern.edu.