As the world marks International Human Rights Day on Monday, news that the United Arab Emirates has arrested an 18-year-old blogger has been met with widespread criticism.
UAE authorities used tough new decrees which make it a criminal offence to use the internet to criticise the state, its institutions – or mock its rulers.
According to the London-based Emirates Centre for Human Rights, the boy, Mohammed Salem al-Zumer was detained on Wednesday at his home in Sharjah, the emirate north of Dubai.
Al-Zumer had reportedly posted comments on the internet supporting prominent jailed activists.
The organisation reports that al-Zumer is the son of a well-known poet in the Emirates and his mother is the sister of Khaled al-Sheiba al-Nuaimi, who was detained in July.
The Gulf Centre for Human Rights also confirmed al-Zumer’s arrest, adding his house was searched for more than an hour, a warrant allegedly justifying such action as a “matter of state security.”
The arrest was made under the new laws, issued as presidential decrees in November, which threaten a minimum of three years imprisonment for online dissenters. The laws cover anyone who uses social media or a website to damage the state or ridicule its institutions.
The move comes as 193 nations enter their second week of discussions over a controversial United Nations plan to reform international telecommunications regulations (ITRs) and absorb the internet into their remit. More than 900 amendments to the so-called ITRs have been proposed, ranging from spam blocks to new mobile roaming fee.
The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) is being held in Dubai amidst growing criticism from civil rights activists, labour unions and many major global internet companies who warn that a bloc of nations, including China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have proposed a raft of reforms which could provide UN ‘legitimacy’ for country-based political controls over the internet.
The UN’s telco arm, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has also been accused of secrecy, allowing the individual countries discretion to make their proposals public rather than release them itself.
‘Deep packet inspection’
The conference has also faced disruption from an apparent hack attack after it approved deeply divisive new standards for what is known as ‘deep packet inspection’. These were first put to a meeting last month of the World Telecommunication Standardisation Assembly.
The ‘deep packet inspection’ technique is used by telco companies to get an overview of traffic, including the number of blocked or dropped calls. However it can also be used to spy on individual customers to monitor what sites they visit, what kind of data and how much data they use.
The Washington DC-based Center for Democracy & Technology told the BBC that it had major concerns about its approval: “The telecommunications standards arm of the UN has quietly endorsed the standardization of technologies that could give governments and companies the ability to sift through all of an internet user’s traffic – including emails, banking transactions, and voice calls – without adequate privacy safeguards,” it said.
“The move suggests that some governments hope for a world where even encrypted communications may not be safe from prying eyes.”
The General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow, has led a global campaign over the last month to demand wider, more transparent debate about the reforms.
“All stakeholders and netizens should have a voice in these discussions.
“There has been no consultation around these proposals which give governments and companies all over the world the ability not only to charge users for services such as email and Skype but to restrict access to the internet and monitor everything you do online,” she said.
“The new rules will also hurt people in poorer countries and those living in dictatorships even more…as we are seeing in some countries already.”