At least 15 UAE Facebook or Twitter accounts have been shut down by order of the Dubai Police this year, The National reports,with ‘electronic crime’ cases more than doubling from 2010 to 2011.
The Dubai Police reported the accounts to Facebook and Twitter, and the social networks complied and shut them down. Details of the crimes have not been made clear, beyond stating that they were abusive or defamatory, both punishable by law in the UAE.
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Quoting Major Saeed Al Hairi, the head of the Electronic Crime Division, Dubai-based newspaper 7Days gave a little additional insight into why at least one of the accounts was shut down: “One major case involved hackers who broke into girls’ accounts and emails and downloaded their pictures. They then used them to blackmail them for money or sexual favours.”
According to reports, Facebook and Twitter agreed to shut down these accounts, at least 3 of them just this past week, after local authorities provided evidence that they had in fact broken local UAE laws.
After news emerged that Dubai Police monitor social media in the country around the clock, they later came out and denied these claims saying, “We are not concerned with people’s private lives and we do not routinely monitor people’s accounts. We respect people’s freedoms,” Major General Khamis Al Mazeina said. He explained that the police only looks into specific accounts after they receive a complaint.
While the shutting down of a Twitter or Facebook account is nothing out of the ordinary, happening on a regular basis for abusing the sites’ own Terms, in this case local laws are governing the decision. Neither Facebook or Twitter can be faulted for complying.
The problem here is this: where is the line? Dubai Police are notorious for targeting social media users for statements made online, where the shutting down of an account is the least of a Twitter user’s worries. Twitter user Saleh al-Dhufairi was arrested, and later released, for criticizing the country’s security forces, while the Dubai Chief of Police, Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan Tamim, publicly stated that Twitter users critical of the country could face arrest.
His very own critics have also been silenced, when a man was arrested in February for what Tamim felt were defamatory statements.
The UAE has a very strict set of Internet and electronic crime laws which forbid, among other things, tagging people in Facebook pictures without their permission and spreading rumours via BlackBerry Messenger, IM and SMS.