By Matthew Wade
This week the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority confirmed that the Emirates' website blocking policies will be given an overhaul.
This is great news, says Matt Wade, unless that is you're a tech-savvy expat living in an Emaar property.
According to a Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) spokesperson's comments last week , the regulator will next year roll out its new Internet Penetration Policy (IPP). And the implication from the spokesperson's comments, at least the implication I understood from reading them, is that while at present many entire websites are blocked here in the UAE, this might not remain the case.
"The penetration policy will be liberalised in the sense that it will be more specific," the TRA's spokesman told UAE newspaper Emirates Business 24-7. "We do not want to deny access to websites that are social portals and encourage cultural interaction in today's globalised world. At the same time it has to be done without losing our identity, traditions, ethics, morals and culture."
That could be a positive change for UAE surfers, who have seen many of their favourite sites in recent times bite the dust; from the hugely popular photo sharing website Flickr.com, through to social online destinations Friendster, Orkut and Hi5.com.
The spokesman's comments suggest that parts of currently blocked social networking sites will become accessible for the first time. And to my mind, this can only be made possible if more advanced filtering systems are in the pipeline. Which is cracking news for every UAE-based netizen.
I conclude such a change in systemic approach because if we look back at when the TRA has blocked websites in the past, one of its oft-touted responses to itp.net has been to state that certain content sections of a site - say on Flickr.com - were inappropriate for this region. Therefore, and I'm paraphrasing here, the TRA line was that, ‘unless the site can be re-organised so that we can easily block the sections of inappropriate content', such bans would remain.
Of course, that was always going to mean full sites with even just a small amount of dodgy content would remain blocked, as realistically, why would a company based overseas reorder its whole site just to allow a relatively small number of users in a far-away country to access it (potentially frustrating its millions of users around the world in the process). They just wouldn't. And, more importantly - as far as the sites we've had an eye on have been concerned - they haven't. So the blocks on sites such as Flock.com stood.
However, the TRA staffer's remarks suggest the content filtering systems used - or more specifically, those used by Etisalat and du at the TRA's request - to filter out what content we can, will allow sections of websites to be blocked, rather than just basic URLs. Rather like a large-scale implementation of the type of ‘kid-safe' software parents can buy, such as Net Nanny and B-Safe Online.
As far as Facebook is concerned, what this could mean is the kind of intelligent filtering that can allow everyday apps such as FunWall and MyQuestions to be enjoyed, but can block the script hosts (in other words, the websites that provide the code) for the flirting and dating applications that are now so common on the site.
If this is the case then, you can expect to keep getting bitten by zombies and asked questions, but expect ‘Flirtable' to become ‘Blockable' and bite the digital dust.
Generally speaking, the benefits of having at least some access to previously blocked sites should - arguably depending on a user's marital status - weigh up fairly well against the issue of not being able to enjoy every bit of Facebook, MySpace or other such sites.
What will likely bite about the TRA's forthcoming changes however, is that its site blocks will from next year also apply to Free Zone surfers too. Which means those cheeky VoIP users in Emaar properties will have to start paying the going market rate for calls to friends and family abroad. And that's got to sting...
It sounds to me like the old question of whether the glass is half empty or half full. My question with Facebook is how are they going to pull this off? Facebook provides such minimal information about people's profiles before you are invited that it is hard to access the material you are trying to filter.
Quote "Which means those cheeky VoIP users in Emaar properties will have to start paying the going market rate for calls to friends and family abroad. " The issue is that the rates people would have to pay are not the "market rates" but over inflated (reasons for this are varied but some may it is a form of indirect taxation or others that it is to help build a national "champion" in Etisalat). Just look at equivalent countries with more open Telecomms market places than the UAE (Jordan, Pakistan, Bahrain, even Egypt, for instance), they all have call rates closer to the real market value of an international voice minute! If the international call rates here were more reasonable, then people would not feel so "ripped off" and less compelled to use other means to communicate.....