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The Legal Aspects of Social Media in the U.A.E.

The Legal Aspects of Social Media in the U.A.E.

Lawgical with LYLAW and Tim Elliot

24 September 2019

Tim Elliot:  Welcome to another edition of Lawgical, the regular weekly podcast from the Dubai-based law firm, HPL Yamalova & Plewka, still, still the Gulf Region’s first and only legal podcast.  I’m Tim Elliot, here again at the firm’s offices.  We’re on the 18th floor of Reef Tower in Jumeirah Lakes Towers.  Another sunny, slightly hazy, Dubai day, and here is the Managing Partner of the firm, Ludmila Yamalova.  Good to see you.

Ludmila Yamalova:  Good to see you and welcome back to the firm.  Always a pleasure to see you.

Tim Elliot:  Now in this edition of Lawgical, and you’ll like this, we’re talking about the legal aspects of social media here in the U.A.E.  Now the U.A.E., if you’ve not been here, if you have, you’ll know this, it’s a young and diverse, it’s a connected society.  According to recent population estimates, eight million people are between the ages of 15 and 54, so you can bet that a hefty percentage of that age group is either all interested in or at least aware of social media.  We’re all online.  Smartphone penetration is widely considered to be amongst the highest per capita in the world.  Now, as human beings, we all want to know each other’s business, see what our friends are up to, what the big brands are doing, who’s winning, who’s losing.  The picture I’m trying to paint is that social media is a big deal.  You need to be aware in the U.A.E. that privacy is highly valued.  For misuse of information technology, there are hefty penalties, and we’re going to be talking about that today.  Now, Ludmila, let’s break this down.  The essence of being online in this day and age, particularly here in the U.A.E., and if there was one line to cover what you need to think about before you post is, very simply, think before you post.

Ludmila Yamalova:  That would be a very wise rule of thumb.  Think before you post and just be cautious.

Tim Elliot:  Yes.

Ludmila Yamalova:  Cautious about the content that you put out and the message that you’re trying to convey.  There are a number of limitations in terms of content and scrutiny of content that can be posted on social media in the U.A.E. and in the region.  Some of the more important limitations are (1) those related to privacy, (2) those related to reputation or integrity, and (3) finally, to security and that would be national or state security.  Any comments or content that somehow may violate or breach one of these three areas can be quite dangerous and dangerous because violation of any one of those things actually in the U.A.E. are a criminal offense.  In other words, if you breach someone’s privacy, it’s managed or adjudicated by the criminal courts and it’s subject to penal order or penal law.  Similarly, if for example, you insult someone and therefore the person feels either they are being defamed or their reputation has been ruined, once again, in the U.A.E. it is a criminal offense.  Obviously, anything related to state security, that is in the interest of the state to very tightly control, and any content therefore they may somehow jeopardize state security is very highly regulated.  There is actually one more and that is related to religion.  This actually applies not to just Islam which is the main religion here in the U.A.E., but any other religion.  In fact, the U.A.E. discourages any kind of defamatory, offensive content, if you will, regarding any religion, but certainly no defamatory or offensive content can be published that offends Islam.

Tim Elliot:  So, it and has become an increasingly regulated area.  If you do misuse information technology, it is subject to federal law on combating information technology crimes, Article 20.  Just let me bring this into real focus.  It provides for imprisonment possibly and a fine of not less than 250,000 dirhams, up to 500,000 dirhams, or one of those penalties for each of the third parties.  The point is, if you’re using an information network or information technology it means you do have to be very, very careful.  Let’s drill down slightly.  Facebook posts, for example, are often contentious.  We’ve all heard of fake news.  Sometimes they’re opinionated.  They’re often, simply, plainly fake.  But the point is to remember where you are and at all times I think to consider – and I’m going back to this think before you post – to consider what the U.A.E. stands for in terms of morality and decency.

Ludmila Yamalova:  Indeed, but also an important comment to make is that, for now, truth is not a defense here.  For example, let’s say you came to my business and you were dissatisfied about my services, and then you left my office and you went home, opened up your Facebook or your social media and started posting comments about the poor quality of service that I provided you with, and you were right perhaps because let’s say I gave you wrong advice or I mistreated you for some reason, or what have you.  You actually have a valid reason to complain and now you want to share with the world your experience with my business.  That itself, posting any content related to that, to any kind of reputational aspects of my business, actually would be considered defamatory and therefore punishable under the criminal law and the cyber law that you just mentioned.  In this particular case, truth is not a defense.  Also, for example, if you’re walking around and you start taking pictures of other people, that would constitute a violation of privacy.  Therefore, if you took those pictures and then went around and posted them on your Facebook or even shared them, perhaps through WhatsApp, with third parties, that too can constitute a breach of criminal law in the U.A.E. for a violation or a breach of somebody’s privacy.  There have been examples where someone, for example, recorded what they believed was a crime in the U.A.E. and then they posted that on social media.  That as well is considered to be against the law, and this is on the basis that the authorities want to have control over this kind of content.  Ultimately, they have the authority to adjudicate these cases and they want such information to be brought to them so that they can act on it versus for that content to be posted on social media and for the public to judge that particular act and not the relevant authority.  These are just some examples of what can be something that is perhaps innocently posted or shared, especially among the youth, in the U.A.E. can very quickly rise to the level of a criminal act and therefore just thinking again and again about the potential effect of your comments is highly advisable in all contexts, not just personal, but also business.

Tim Elliot:  The thing is now social media is so prevalent.  We all have phones with cameras on, but strictly speaking, if you take a picture of somebody you need permission from that person, specific permission, to post it or even to have that picture on your device.

Ludmila Yamalova:  For sure.  In fact, there have been more examples, and we actually have witnessed those examples.  I have personally witnessed these examples.  For example, somebody is walking around and then started taking pictures of children in a particular playground.  That is not allowed.  You can approach any such people and have them show their camera to you and make sure that they delete all the photos on their camera, and if they refuse, then you could actually call the police and they will either make them delete or they will deal with them in a more formal way, but this is an example of even something like that you want to be very mindful about what you capture with your many different digital devices and obviously before you do anything with that data, because let’s face it, sometimes we go around and we take photos of our friends and families and there will be strangers that will make it to those photos as well.  It’s about balance.  But those people who just go around in the streets and take photos of people that they don’t know, in particular children, need to be very, very careful because such acts are quite highly regulated here.

Tim Elliot:  There have been a number of famous, widely reported upon incidents.  A few years ago, in fact, around about 2013, there was a road rage incident.  It was filmed by a passerby who then posted that online.  I think it was YouTube that he posted it on.  It’s a case that made headlines, not just because the person who committed the road rage against the other driver was punished, but also because the person who filmed it and posted it was prosecuted because the act of capturing video and posting online breaches U.A.E. law.  Had that person videoed that road rage incident, however, and uploaded it directly to Dubai police, they have an app that allows you to send in evidence of crime or misdemeanor, that’s a different case.

Ludmila Yamalova:  Indeed, and that’s a very good example.  There have been a number of such examples.  In that particular case, the Dubai police and other authorities came on record and expressly stated exactly that.  They were not condoning just the act of capture that particular abuse or road rage, but rather the means by which that content or that information was shared.  They encouraged in that case and continue to encourage throughout for the public to actually use the means that the authorities have provided to the public to document and report such incidents.  As you rightfully said, the Dubai police has an app and so many other government authorities have various apps that allow people and, in fact, they encourage them to report any such incidents to them directly through the diverse and easily used means that are available to the public.  The idea is not to just close your eyes and ignore it or pretend it didn’t happen, but rather bring it to the right authority so that the authority can deal with that incident as the authority deems fit.

Tim Elliot:  Let’s assume that you are in your next phase of social media.  You are, or want to become, what’s known as a social media influencer.  You want to be commercially active on social media here in the U.A.E.  In the last couple of years really, we’ve seen the requirement for licensing introduced for people who want to be active commercially socially.  What does the licensing cover?  What’s the situation of what you actually need to become an Instagram influencer, for example?

Ludmila Yamalova:  It’s interesting because actually we have a real business that we work very hard, and we try to continue to spread the word, if you will about what we do and our services, but it’s not so easy.  But we have license.  We have a license to practice law.  But there are many other individuals out there who are much more capable at creating a brand for themselves, a brand that just basically attaches not to the particular business or the type of services that they offer, but just the brand and the image.  That’s very impressive, and that’s actually become a thing of the future or certainly the current generation, and this particular law that you’re referring to aims at those kinds of individuals.  It’s not about businesses, for example, using social media to promote their services because, as businesses, we already have a license to perform those services and therefore obviously to communicate to the world what we do within the parameters that apply to our particular business.  But there are other individuals out there who have figured out a successful way to market themselves and they have created a brand around themselves that now generates revenue by virtue of advertising certain products that are attached to their name.  Let’s say there is a celebrity and it could be because she sings well, but not necessarily a famous singer, but somehow she was able to capture an audience or a fanbase based on her ability to sing, so now the next time she posts a video for sale singing, she may be wearing a watch that she’s been paid for to advertise or to wear while she is performing, or drive a certain car or wear a bag and so on and so forth, or makeup.  In that particular case, the person is not making money by selling her songs, for example, or her shows, but rather by just wearing certain products for which she gets paid while she is performing her act.  This is what the influencers, at least in the context of this law, are all about, and that’s what this law tries to address is that for people who have built such a strong brand to the point where they can raise revenue from various products and companies and brands who pay them money to advertise, then basically their business is as an influencer.  They are able with their own brand to influence their fanbase about whatever it is that they’re advertising or they’re wearing or featuring in their show at that point in time.  This regulation was introduced to address this new type of business, if you will, by requiring such influencers to apply for a license that is akin to a normal corporate license which, for example, us, the law firm, has or any other business that is properly licensed here.  That’s what this law is about.  There was quite a bit of misconception about its applicability.  In the beginning it was thought that it applied to anyone who uses any form of social media and that all of sudden all of these businesses needed to get an additional license to be able to communicate with the world through social media, but really that law was a lot more limited.  It was limited to this new type of business that has risen in the last, just few years, and that is influencers, people that are so famous and so influential that others, third parties, pay them to feature their products.

Tim Elliot:  Let’s just sum up everything that you said.  I mean, in the simplest possible terms, you need to, if you are active on social media in the U.A.E., you need to be considerate of other people’s privacy and reputation before you post anything.  Common sense applies, of course, but if in doubt, don’t hit send is really the phrase to live by, if you’re not sure.

Ludmila Yamalova:  Indeed.  We’ve had a lot of people question perhaps.  In their mind it seems quite limiting from their perspective, the U.A.E. law in terms of what they can communicate online, but in a way it makes sense because it takes so long for a business to build a reputation, and it takes absolutely no time to have the reputation ruined if someone is allowed just to post one bad comment.  It’s about balance, but to be honest with you, what we see over the course of however many years now that we’ve seen these kinds of cases pop up, is that the U.A.E. here aims to achieve that balance and allow businesses and allow freedom of speech within reason, and that is, we’re all free to speak and grow businesses and grow families, but let’s just be respectful and cautious about what we do that has a much broader application in the world.  Before if you wrote something on a piece of paper, it would remain on that piece of paper.  Now, any kind of such statement that you post on social media gets broadcasted all over the world, so the damage is much greater and therefore the regulations aim to just monitor that damage and prevent damage from happening versus damage control.

Tim Elliot:  That’s it for this edition of Lawgical.  Ludmila Yamalova is the Managing Partner of the Dubai-based law firm, Yamalova & Plewka.  As ever, thank you very much.

Ludmila Yamalova:  Thank you.  It was a very fun chat, as always.

Tim Elliot:  As you can appreciate, we can’t hope to cover every aspect of the U.A.E.’s legal framework in each episode of this podcast, but if there’s a specific question you would like an answer to, get in touch via Lylawyers.com or any of our social channels, and we’ll try to answer it in a future edition of Lawgical.  For a legal consultation, Lylawyers.com is the best place to start.  All you need to do is hit Contact.