x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Websites blocked after complaints from parents

Hundreds of parents complain after their children exploit a loophole that allowed them to surf the web for pornography.

Hundreds of parents have complained after their children exploited a loophole that allowed them to surf the web for pornography, the UAE's internet watchdog revealed yesterday. The head of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) said BlackBerrys, iPhones and other "smartphones" had previously been able to bypass the proxy server that the authorities use to stop access to content deemed inappropriate.

The loophole has been closed after the TRA ordered the mobile phone operators Etisalat and du last month to find a technical mechanism to stop phone users from bypassing the proxy. The TRA set yesterday as a deadline to have the mechanism in place. However, some internet users, communicating via Twitter yesterday, reported that the banned websites were still accessible. Action was taken, said Mohamed Nasser al Ghanem, director general of the TRA, after the authority "received a large number of complaints from parents" who said their children were circumventing the proxy server and seeing pornographic websites on mobile devices.

He said BlackBerrys have a Short Message System feature that can link messages, and that "children started to broadcast links to websites where they could download pornographic content". "It is pornographic short films," he said. "They started to circulate the websites with this content." He said that "for technical reasons" Etisalat and du were unable to block the mobile handsets, leading the TRA to call for the companies to "put a technical mechanism on their platforms so that they can apply these policies."

He said the blocked sites were "95 per cent pornography". Initial evidence suggested that the patches introduced by Etisalat and du were working but Mr al Ghanem did not rule out an unspecified financial penalty on each company should users be able to reconnect to restricted sites. Dubai-based du issued a statement saying: "We are closely working under the supervision of the TRA in ensuring compliance to these directives across all platforms."

The UAE's internet access management policy outlines 13 categories of content that must be filtered by internet providers. They include content involving sex, gambling, criminal activities and defamation of religion, but not politics or social criticism. Regardless, some websites featuring such criticism remain blocked. Baher al Hakim, 29, who owns CloudAppers, an internet applications company, and who has an iPhone, said he doubted there was a significant problem of children using BlackBerrys.

"The BlackBerry is a business phone," he said. "I don't think it is true about children using it to access pornography. I think they are using that as a justification for the ban." He said that the Government "has woken up to the fact that censorship didn't include phones". PK Gulati, 40, a Dubai-based information technology entrepreneur, who uses both an iPhone and a BlackBerry, said he did not object to a restrictions on obscene content but complained the current proxy was too restrictive.

He conceded "we are in a conservative society" but said he opposes a ban on sites such as Flickr, an image and video hosting website. He said he accepted that internet telephone services such as Skype would be banned because they undercut the profits of Etisalat and du, adding that the companies should admit this. chamilton@thenational.ae