UAE passed a new cybercrime law that has been criticised for its apparent attempt to restrict freedom of expression, but this law also happens to introduce a new mechanism to limit the liability of webmasters for content published by third parties.
The first cybercrime law in UAE was passed in 2006 which criminalised a lot of acts on the Internet relating to fraud and the misuse of technology. The new law that was passed early this month introduced many new offences that relate to the use of technology to organise unauthorised protests, receive unauthorised donations, attempt to overthrow the government, and mock the rulers of UAE. The new law also provides for many other general offences such as those relating to terrorism, violation of privacy, and the trafficking of drugs or persons.
The reaction to the new law has been mostly negative as many see it as an attempt to restrict the freedom of expression in the UAE to a new level. I believe that these claims are exaggerated because the new law did not in reality add any new offences in relation to freedom of expression that did not already exist in a general form in other legislations in UAE. For example, attempting to overthrow the government has always been an offence in UAE whether technology was used in that attempt or not. The new law is merely a confirmation of existing principles.
On the other hand, a new interesting feature of the new UAE law which has not yet been highlighted is a provision specifying that a webmaster will be liable for any illegal content that he is aware of on his website. However, if the webmaster is not aware of such content, he would be liable for it only if he does not remove that content upon receiving a notification from the authorities informing him of the illegality of that content.
This is a good step for providing webmasters, such as owners of forums and bloggers, with some comfort that they will not be held responsible for the comments published by users of their website. The authorities previously had an expectation that a webmaster should be held liable for every single comment posted on his website, whether or not made by him, as he is the owner of the website and is in a position to moderate these comments.
This was an unrealistic approach because moderators of popular websites cannot practically pre-approve every single comment published on their website and it is unreasonable to expect a webmaster to be able to make a legal assessment of the content published by others on his website to decide whether or not that content violates any law.
The fact that a webmaster will not be held liable for content he is not aware of will of course not change his liability for any content that he publishes himself regardless of whether or not he knows that this content was illegal. The provision also does not change the position of the liability of the person who posts illegal content on the website of another person. The webmaster of a website will also be reasonably expected to assist the authorities in identifying the offending person upon receiving such an order from a competent authority.
This new provision is a great improvement for webmasters, but it is still far from perfect as the authorities can abuse this system to order a webmaster to remove any content from his website which may not necessarily be illegal, and the webmaster is likely to abide by their notice to escape any potential liability.
Even with the opportunity of abuse, this new addition is better than the current position in many other Gulf countries, including Oman, where the law seems to suggest that a webmaster is strictly liable for all content on his website whether or not he was aware of it.