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Data privacy in the UAE – To post or not to post?

The right to privacy online

27 April 2017

In the time it will take you to read this article, there will have been over 2,500,000 tweets on Twitter, nearly 750,000 Instagram photos posted and over 13,500,000 Google searches made. The internet and social media are firm fixtures in the daily lives of billions of people around the world.

The explosion of online activity in recent years has led to UAE legislators introducing new laws to directly protect our online privacy and prevent the use of legislation which predates the rise of social media in ways the original law-makers could not have anticipated. Despite this reform, the UAE has witnessed a very public struggle unfold between the right to freedom of speech and the right to privacy which is exacerbated by the diverse society of the UAE.

Privacy – what are we trying to protect?

In general terms, privacy refers to the right of an individual to keep certain information about themselves to themselves. In any given jurisdiction, privacy may be regarded as a societal norm or a protected legal right, but it will always be a culturally relative concept. The relativity of the right – that is, the various ways different people interpret the concept of privacy – comes to the fore in the UAE where people from a wide range of cultures live, work and socialise together. The UAE offers a unique forum in which to test the traditional Western-centric concept of privacy in a legal system which was founded on and developed by different standards.

It is not uncommon in many jurisdictions for the right to freedom of expression to be raised as a defence to claims of breach of privacy, such as in the numerous cases of paparazzi photographers attempting to take and publish images of celebrities. In practice, navigating the line between these two culturally relative rights – the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression – is made even more complex in a culturally diverse context like that of the UAE. The boundaries of what is permissible under the protection of the right to freedom of expression before you encroach the privacy rights of fellow residents is therefore particularly difficult to ascertain.

A clear example of the difficulties in interpreting privacy arose recently when an Australian expatriate in Abu Dhabi was fined and deported for "writing bad words on social media". This resulted from posting a photo on Facebook which, had it been posted in her home country, would not have made readers think twice about a possible breach of privacy. The photo showed a car, without a disabled badge, which had parked across two disabled parking bays. The post did not reveal the registration plate of the car, any names or any other identifying features.

It is clear that there is a need to establish a framework which can be easily followed by all members of a multicultural society, such as that in Dubai and in the wider UAE. This is especially important given that the risks of getting it wrong and falling foul of UAE privacy laws can attract large fines, jail sentences and even deportation.

Will my next social media post be in breach of the privacy law?

The scope of the UAE's privacy laws means that a seemingly innocuous social media post could theoretically constitute a breach of privacy, defamation and be an offensive publication all at once. So should we stop using social media altogether?

From recent local news, it certainly appears as if a number of non-malicious acts have been caught by these laws. There are a number of cases which highlight the need to proceed with caution in this area. A man was prosecuted for defamation for posting a video of a friend and his family sleeping on Instagram, without consent. An American citizen who published a parody of Dubai youth culture online was charged with infringing another provision of the cybersecurity law, which makes it an offence to publish information which could expose state security or prejudice public order. A group of public officials is currently awaiting trial for a breach of privacy laws for installing CCTV cameras without adequate cause.

Conclusion

Maintaining an appropriate balance between protecting citizens' privacy and not restricting individuals' freedom of expression is not an easy task.  It is very important that both individuals and companies are aware of what the relevant laws encompass so that they can ensure that their internet usage is risk-free. In particular, businesses that use social media sites (such as LinkedIn,  Facebook and Twitter or even WhatsApp and other messaging services) should be aware of not only the content they publish themselves but also anything posted by customers on their site, as there may be a risk that a business could be held accountable for both their own and their customers' posts. It may be prudent for businesses to ensure that user-generated content is moderated before appearing on their company's social media pages.