UAE Skype censorship poses threat to intellectual freedom

By WSN Editorial Board

Over the past year, NYU Abu Dhabi students have slowly been blocked from being able to use Skype to make computer-to-landline calls. This is due to the United Arab Emirates’ increasing intolerance for Voice Over Internet Protocol services. Though none of these services have ever been licensed in the UAE, NYUAD students were previously capable of using NYU and VPN proxies. While computer-to-computer calls still work despite illegality, this mildly inconvenient ban is representative of a larger issue. It shows that in spite of the “cultural free zone” NYUAD granted in the UAE, the government is still able to restrict campus life.

Two telecommunication companies, Etisalat and du, operate in UAE. Both have shifted the blame for the Skype block to each other and to the government for the several years. Daniel Hanratty, the support site lead at the NYUAD Campus Technology Center, said, “There’s no definite time for how long [Skype] has been blocked” and “blocking has been happening on and off for a year or so now.” There are concerns that the ban could eventually impact computer-to-computer calls on campus as well. Skype has recently confirmed that their website and services have been blocked in the country, and encouraged users to appeal to their internet service providers.

Skype and similar services are often utilized by students and faculty for communication and educational purposes. NYUAD professor Claude Desplan told NYUAD’s student newspaper, The Gazelle, “We use extensively Skype for classes … and for lab [meetings] between people in NYC and people in [Abu Dhabi], at least once weekly.” Although other services can be used for the time being, each new restriction on VoIP services creates further inconveniences. WhatsApp messaging service may also be blocked in the country right now, as users have reported uneven service. Interestingly, WhatsApp plans to launch international VoIP services soon.

Regardless of location, no NYU student should be prevented from utilizing technology because of government censorship. Students were previously able to rely on proxies provided by NYU, but this latest block has rendered even that difficult. NYUAD has yet to officially comment on the situation.

All of these concerns speak to the larger problem of NYU’s presence in Abu Dhabi, which has been heavily criticized for labor law violations. Given that the UAE frequently censors media and imprisons citizens over online comments, the limitations placed on VoIP services are not especially surprising — NYU’s complacence, however, is. NYUAD maintains academic autonomy, but its funding depends entirely on the government of Abu Dhabi. Continued cooperation with the UAE needs to at least include an agreement to allow all forms of open communication on campus. But given the UAE government’s repressive positions, this cooperation should be seriously reconsidered.

A version of this article appeared in the Feb 9 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]