By Greg Aris and Matt Slater
A look at the alarming rise in online harassment via the virtual lifelines most popularly used for keeping in touch.
Staying in touch has never been easier. The unblocking of MySpace followed by the success of Facebook, along with the availablity of mobile technologies such as Bluetooth, has opened up virtual socialising to everyone in the UAE, and the country has taken to it with aplomb. Facebook has over 55,000 users in the UAE with numbers rising daily, and according to some reports there are more mobile phones than people in the Emirates. But beneath the day-to-day texting, poking and messaging there is an increasing problem of online harassment and it is a problem that could threaten the sites' existence in the UAE. What starts off as a seemingly innocent text message, email or posting can turn into a wave of lewd and unwanted messages, aimed at single women in Dubai.
‘I get on average three unwanted friend requests on Facebook every day and all are from men in the UAE,' says Anne Chaplin, a 28-year-old Briton who works in Media City. ‘Some are fairly innocuous, but many are also sleazy and totally inappropriate.' Anne has now deleted information from her profile, in an effort to stop the barrage of unwanted messages. ‘I also have a MySpace page, but don't check it any more because of these types of messages,' she adds. One man even sent a picture of a certain part of his body with a crude message alongside it. ‘I decided enough was enough and reported him to the website's administrators, and they banned his profile the next day.'
Because of these messages, Anne says it has made her more alert when she is out at night. ‘All the messages have been from men on the UAE Facebook network; it's sometimes a bit unnerving to think the same guys doing this are out and about in the city,' she says.
Anne is not alone in being harassed online by men in Dubai. Some have now stopped using sites like Facebook - where the majority of users from the UAE are male - altogether. ‘It wasn't worth the hassle in the end, but it's a real shame because it was a great way to keep in contact with friends,' says Mayada Amir. ‘I would log on and there would be so many messages from men in the UAE that it would take ages to find the ones from my actual friends. Some of the things they suggested were not pleasant and one man even offered me money if I would meet with him. A lot of my friends have also suffered from this and sometimes they have not known what to do.'
When it comes to being harassed on social networking websites, both of the UAE's telecoms operators - Etisalat and Du - have the same advice: take action immediately. ‘If an incident such as this happens on one of these networking sites, the user can contact the website administrator and bring it to their attention,' says Ahmed Bin Ali, a vice president at Etisalat.
Although some parts of MySpace have been blocked, the UAE Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) has left many networking websites alone. The TRA told Time Out that if they get complaints about the content of sites like Facebook, then they will be banned. ‘At the present time we can say that we have no intention of stopping access to Facebook,' says the TRA's Mohammed Gheyath. ‘We have heard that people think this is going to happen but that is not the case. However, we do take any complaints seriously and the situation would be reviewed should that happen.'
Regarding harassment by email, both Du and Etisalat recommend blocking the sender's email address. But if the problem persists then the police will investigate. ‘When it is an email we can trace the person,' explains an official at Dubai Police HQ. ‘That is not easy through a website. But if women feel they are being harassed through emails, they should save them and bring them to us. This is something that will not be tolerated. If a woman is unsure what to do when these emails have been blocked and that still fails to stop it, then they shouldn;t hesitate to report it to us.'
After being inundated with emails from female readers about harassment through mobile phone calls and messages, Time Out took to the streets, switched on the Bluetooth connection on our mobile phone and strolled through Mina Bazaar near the Creek in Bur Dubai, and Mall of the Emirates. Within minutes, men were trying to send messages and photos via Bluetooth, and it didn't stop until we broke the connection.
Mobile phone numbers are given out fairly readily in Dubai - almost everyone has a business card with theirs on. ‘In regards to these SMS messages, only text messages from a Du code to a Du mobile number can be blocked by us and customers should contact us if they need this,' says a Du spokeswoman. ‘However, if the message causes anxiety and is of an offensive nature, then it needs to be reported to the proper authorities - the police.'
Sites like MySpace and Facebook have become a global phenomenon because they connect people thousands of miles apart and also allow people to meet a wide group of friends easily. The downside is that, in Dubai, women are left feeling wide open to harassment. And unless those sending messages get the message that it's unacceptable to behave in this way, it could mean that access to these sites is taken away from everyone.
For all the latest tech news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.