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The following chapter, written for ICLG.com, covers Telecoms, Media and Internet Laws and Regulations in the UAE. The chapter can also be read here: Telecoms, Media and Internet Laws and Regulations.
1.1 Please describe the: (a) telecoms, including internet; and (b) audio-visual media distribution sectors in your jurisdiction, in particular by reference to each sector’s: (i) annual revenue; and (ii) 3–5 most significant market participants.
There are only two telecom providers in the UAE, which are the Etisalat Group and the Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company (“EITC”), operating under the brand names Etisalat and Du, respectively.
Additionally, in 2017, the EITC introduced the Virgin Mobile UAE brand into the region, operating as a subsidiary service provider.
There are several audio-visual distribution channels in the UAE which include the two telecom providers mentioned above as well as private cable companies and over-the-top (“OTT”) providers.
1.2 List the most important legislation which applies to the: (a) telecoms, including internet; and (b) audio-visual media distribution sectors in your jurisdiction and any significant legislation on the horizon such as the regulation of online harms, regulation of social media or artificial intelligence (please list the draft legislation and policy papers).
The following legislations are of note:
■ UAE Federal Law No. 15 of 1980 regarding printing and publishing (the “PPL”).
■ UAE Federal Law No. 3 of 1987 (the “UAE Penal Code”).
■ UAE Federal Law No. 3 of 2002 regarding the organisation of the telecommunications sector as amended (the “UAE Telecoms Law”).
■ UAE Federal Law No. 5 of 2012 on combatting Information Technology Crimes as amended by UAE Federal Law No. 12 of 2016 and UAE Federal Decree No. 2 of 2018 (the “Cyber-Crime Law”).
■ UAE Federal Law No. 11 of 2016 on the regulation and powers of the National Media Council (the “NMC Law”).
■ NMC Board Resolution No. 30 of 2017 (the “Media Content Regulation”).
■ NMC Electronic Media Activity Regulation of 2018 (the “EMR”).
1.3 List the government ministries, regulators, other agencies and major industry self-regulatory bodies which have a role in the regulation of the: (a) telecoms, including internet; (b) audio-visual media distribution sectors; (c) social media platforms; and (d) artificial intelligence in your jurisdiction.
The main telecoms regulator in the UAE is the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (“TRA”) which was created pursuant to the UAE Telecoms Law. The Media Regulatory Office (“MRO”) regulates audio-visual media in the UAE and has partially replaced the National Media Council. The UAE has a stand-alone ministry that handles all matters of artificial intelligence, which was created in 2017. In July 2020, the ministry was renamed the Artificial Intelligence, Digital Economy & Remote Working Application Office.
1.4 In relation to the: (a) telecoms, including internet; and (b) audio-visual media distribution sectors: (i) have they been liberalised?; and (ii) are they open to foreign investment including in relation to the supply of telecoms equipment? Are there any upper limits?
The telecoms industry remains closed and limited to the two entities mentioned in question 1.1. The audio-visual media sector has several local and foreign entities licensed in the UAE providing traditional media services as well as OTT media providers.
2.1 Is your jurisdiction a member of the World Trade Organization? Has your jurisdiction made commitments under the GATS regarding telecommunications and has your jurisdiction adopted and implemented the telecoms reference paper?
Yes, the UAE is a member of the World Trade Organization (“WTO”). The UAE has not made any commitments under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (“GATS”) regarding telecommunications.
2.2 How is the provision of telecoms (or electronic communications) networks and services regulated?
The TRA is the sole telecoms regulator in the UAE, as set out in question 1.3. The TRA regularly issues new legislations as part of their regulatory framework, which governs several ancillary areas related to the provision of telecom services.
2.3 Who are the regulatory and competition law authorities in your jurisdiction? How are their roles differentiated? Are they independent from the government? Which regulator is responsible for social media platforms? What statutory basis do they have?
The UAE took steps to provide a competition law framework with the passing of UAE Federal Law No. 4 of 2012 (the “UAE Competition Law”), which was followed by its implementation of regulations through Resolution No. 37 of 2014.
The telecoms industry is left out of the remit of the UAE Competition Law as we continue to see a duopoly, as explained in question 1.1 above.
Several regulators are responsible for supervising different aspects of social media platforms, as set out in our answers to question 1.3. The statutes mentioned in our answers to question 1.2 highlight the powers of the various regulators in question.
2.4 Are decisions of the national regulatory authority able to be appealed? If so, to which court or body, and on what basis?
The TRA makes the decisions regarding the regulation of the telecoms industry as a stand-alone body, and as the sole regulator in this industry.
Entities can choose to appeal any decisions taken against specific corporate entities before the TRA; however, there is no formal process of appeal, and this does not take place before any court of law but before whichever committee has been specifically set up at the TRA for said purpose.
2.5 What types of general and individual authorisations are used in your jurisdiction? Please highlight those telecom-based authorisations needed for the installation and/or maintenance of infrastructure?
The TRA is responsible for issuing authorisations in the UAE, whether these individual or class licences. The TRA distinguishes these two types of licences as follows:
■ Individual Licence: These are issued for services that require the usage of scarce resources of spectrum and numbers and are issued for a period of 10 years.
■ Class Licence: These are issued where there is no need to use scarce resources and where, due to lack of importance or significance to the public, regulatory oversight may not be required. Class licences are also issued for a period of 10 years.
2.6 Please summarise the main requirements of your jurisdiction’s general authorisation.
An application for an individual or a class licence will require an applicant to fill out an application form requesting standard information regarding the entity, including: (a) incorporation documents; (b) a chart showing all shareholders of the applicant; (c) a network diagram of the services/facilities that wish to be offered; (d) a business plan; and (e) details of key management personnel.
In order to make an application, an entity must be incorporated in the UAE pursuant to UAE Federal Law No. 2 of 2015 (the “UAE Companies Law”). An entity must also comply with Article 28 of the UAE Telecoms Law which states that a licence will only be provided to an entity that has been established by a decision of the TRA board. Lastly, the entity’s shareholding must fall in line with any applicable resolution issued by the TRA.
2.7 In relation to individual authorisations, please identify their subject matter, duration and ability to be transferred or traded. Are there restrictions on the change of control of the licensee?
Please see answer to question 2.6.
2.8 Are there any particular licences or other requirements (for example, in relation to emergency services) in relation to VoIP services?
As stated in question 1.1, there are currently only two authorised telco providers in the UAE that are allowed to provide their own VoIP services and have created stand-alone phone applications for this purpose. The TRA have banned all other providers of VoIP services from entering the UAE market.
In March 2020, the TRA issued an exceptional relaxation of the ban stated above and allowed several VoIP applications to be used within the UAE until further notice, and in order to support the remote learning and working from home provisions put in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
2.9 Are there specific legal or administrative provisions dealing with access and/or securing or enforcing rights to public and private land in order to install telecommunications infrastructure?
The telecommunications infrastructure is owned by one of the two authorised telco providers, which are licensed by the TRA, and therefore access to public or private land is not an issue.
2.10 How is wholesale interconnection and access mandated? How are wholesale interconnection or access disputes resolved?
The TRA has the requisite powers to provide access as well as to conduct ex post investigations and issue ex ante regulation where required.
2.11 Which operators are required to publish their standard interconnection contracts and/or prices?
As there are only two authorised telco providers in the UAE, there is no open publishing of interconnection contracts, since information is limited to the two entities that are eligible for interconnection.
2.12 Looking at fixed, mobile and other services, are charges for interconnection (e.g. switched services) and/or network access (e.g. wholesale leased lines) subject to price or cost regulation and, if so, how?
The TRA will only step in to regulate price or cost where there is any disagreement between the two authorised telco providers. Where there is need for the TRA to be a part of the process, consultation procedures take place which can be attended by all stakeholders.
2.13 Are any operators subject to: (a) accounting separation; (b) functional separation; and/or (c) legal separation?
There is no such separation imposed in the UAE.
2.14 Describe the regulation applicable to high-speed broadband networks. On what terms are passive infrastructure (ducts and poles), copper networks, cable TV and/or fibre networks required to be made available? Are there any incentives or ‘regulatory holidays’?
This is not applicable in the UAE.
2.15 Are retail price controls imposed on any operator in relation to fixed, mobile, or other services?
This is not applicable in the UAE.
2.16 Is the provision of electronic communications services to consumers subject to any special rules (such as universal service) and if so, in what principal respects?
The TRA has issued certain directives to be followed under the most recent version of the consumer protection regulations (the “CPR”) issued in March 2019, covering, among other things, items required to be included in a contract and required information that a customer must be aware of when entering into a contract. The most recent version of the CPR includes the TRA’s Consumer Dispute Procedures as well as renewed guidelines regarding advertising practices of licensees.
2.17 How are telephone numbers and network identifying codes allocated and by whom?
The TRA allocates telephone numbers and network identifying codes and these are provided to the two authorised telco providers. The telco providers will then allocate the telephone numbers to users as they approach them for their services.
It should be noted that the TRA reserves the right to remove access to any specific numbers and remains the only authority able to allocate telephone numbers in the UAE.
2.18 Are there any special rules which govern the use of telephone numbers?
There are no specific rules governing the use of telephone numbers. The TRA has the authority to remove allocated telephone numbers from a licensee in the event of non-use and can choose whether to make these available in the future.
2.19 Are there any special rules relating to dynamic calling line identification presentation?
This is not applicable in the UAE.
2.20 Are there any obligations requiring number portability?
When the second telco provider was licensed by the TRA in 2008, number portability had long been spoken about, and was finally announced in 2013. As of the time of writing, users of both telco providers can retain their numbers while switching between the two providers.
3 Radio Spectrum
3.1 What authority regulates spectrum use?
The TRA regulates spectrum use.
3.2 How is the use of radio spectrum authorised in your jurisdiction? What procedures are used to allocate spectrum between candidates – i.e. spectrum auctions, comparative ‘beauty parades’, etc.?
The TRA is the sole entity authorised to allocate radio spectrum in the UAE. A candidate will need to apply for a frequency spectrum authorisation in accordance with Article 50 of the UAE Telecoms Law. The TRA has put together the National Spectrum Plan and the National Table of Frequency Allocation and Radiocommunication Policy, which provide the framework for all radio communication services in the UAE. The TRA is responsible for assigning the frequency spectrum to any applicant.
3.3 Can the use of spectrum be made licence-exempt? If so, under what conditions? Are there penalties for the unauthorised use of spectrum? If so, what are they?
This is not possible in the UAE.
3.4 If licence or other authorisation fees are payable for the use of radio frequency spectrum, how are these applied and calculated?
Fees related to the use of radio frequency spectrum are communicated to each applicant on a case-by-case basis and are not publicly available.
3.5 What happens to spectrum licences if there is a change of control of the licensee?
Any change of control must ensure that it abides by the TRA guidelines for shareholding restrictions as set out in the UAE Telecoms Law.
3.6 Are spectrum licences able to be assigned, traded or sub-licensed and, if so, on what conditions?
This is possible; however, it would require the approval of the TRA board, which is provided on a discretionary basis.
4 Cyber-security, Interception, Encryption and Data Retention
4.1 Describe the legal framework for cybersecurity. Are there any specific requirements in relation to telecoms operators?
The core right to privacy and confidentiality of information and trade secrets is codified in the UAE Penal Code. In order to keep up with new means of technology, the Cyber Crime Law was passed in 2012 and subsequently amended in 2016 to cover all types of cybercrime that may occur in the UAE.
The TRA views cybersecurity as a crucial element to providing a robust and efficient telecommunication infrastructure, and launched the National Cybersecurity Strategy in June 2019. The aim of the National Cybersecurity Strategy is to ensure the country’s preparedness in the event of a cyberattack both at the regulatory and policy levels as well as at the commercial and individual level.
4.2 Describe the legal framework (including listing relevant legislation) which governs the ability of the state (police, security services, etc.) to obtain access to private communications.
The right to privacy is enshrined in the UAE Constitution and is thus an important element of an individual’s right in the UAE. The Cyber Crime Law sets out clear penalties in the event where an individual unlawfully obtains access to private communications.
4.3 Summarise the rules which require market participants to maintain call interception (wire-tap) capabilities. Does this cover: (i) traditional telephone calls; (ii) VoIP calls; (iii) emails; and (iv) any other forms of communications?
There are no such rules applicable in the UAE.
4.4 How does the state intercept communications for a particular individual?
This is not applicable in the UAE.
4.5 Describe the rules governing the use of encryption and the circumstances when encryption keys need to be provided to the state.
This is not applicable in the UAE.
4.6 Are there any specific cybersecurity requirements on telecoms, cloud providers or social media platforms? (If so, please list the relevant legislation.)
The CPR sets out that telecom providers are obligated to take any and all reasonable measures that may be required to protect the privacy of the consumers, and must ensure the safety of any information stored on their servers regarding their consumers. Telecom providers are also obligated, through the CPR, to use service providers that abide by the same standards issued by the TRA and remain responsible for any unlawful usage of consumer data by third-party suppliers.
4.7 What data are telecoms or internet infrastructure operators obliged to retain and for how long?
This is not applicable in the UAE.
5 Distribution of Audio-Visual Media
5.1 How is the distribution of audio-visual media regulated in your jurisdiction?
While the PPL and the Penal Code had long been the text of law referred to when ascertaining permitted audio-visual media content, the NMC Law established the NMC as the sole regulator of audio-visual media in the UAE. The NMC has regularly enacted regulations to improve and refine the active regulations in the country.
Most recently, through the Media Content Regulation and the Economic Substance Regulations (“ESR”), it has provided a clear distinction with regards to the usage of media content in printed and digital formats as well as providing a clear platform to protect intellectual property rights (“IPR”).
5.2 Is content regulation (including advertising, as well as editorial) different for content broadcast via traditional distribution platforms as opposed to content delivered over the internet or other platforms? Please describe the main differences.
While it has long been assumed that electronic platforms were required to follow the standards set by the PPL and the Penal Code, the ESR removed any doubt surrounding this point and it is now clear that content regulation remains the same no matter the platform utilised.
5.3 Describe the different types of licences for the distribution of audio-visual media and their key obligations.
The MRO is the regulatory body responsible for the issuance of different types of licenses for the distribution of audio-visual media. Currently, the MRO has segmented the licenses based on the type of media e.g. books, newspapers, magazines, audio, video, video games, etc. The obligations differ based on each type of license and these are at times discretionary by the MRO depending on the applicant.
5.4 Are licences assignable? If not, what rules apply? Are there restrictions on change of control of the licensee?
It is possible for licences to be assigned; however, it will require the approval of the NMC, which is provided on a discretionary basis.
6 Internet Infrastructure
6.1 How have the courts interpreted and applied any defences (e.g. ‘mere conduit’ or ‘common carrier’) available to protect telecommunications operators and/or internet service providers from liability for content carried over their networks?
This is not applicable in the UAE.
6.2 Are telecommunications operators and/or internet service providers under any obligations (i.e. to provide information, inform customers, disconnect customers) to assist content owners whose rights may be infringed by means of file-sharing or other activities?
This is not applicable in the UAE.
6.3 Are there any ‘net neutrality’ requirements? Are telecommunications operators and/or internet service providers able to differentially charge and/or block different types of traffic over their networks?
The UAE does not have any specific net neutrality requirements. As mentioned in question 2.8, VoIP services have long been blocked until there was a temporary reprieve in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
6.4 Are telecommunications operators and/or internet service providers under any obligations to block access to certain sites or content? Are consumer VPN services regulated or blocked?
The TRA is responsible for regulating the content available on any webpages or websites. Simultaneously, the TRA also imposes a requirement on the telecom providers to filter the content that passes through their network, and they remain responsible to block/remove access and/or report to the TRA any such instance of unlawful content.
Content is deemed unlawful if it violates public policy or values as imposed under UAE law. The TRA has provided a non-exhaustive list as to what is considered blocked content, which includes morally and commercially illegal activities as well as activities that are deemed to be against the benefit of the State.
Proxy servers and VPNs remain prohibited where their purpose is to access prohibited content. The TRA has clarified that VPNs are permissible where their use is not to access prohibited content.
6.5 Is there any regulation applicable to companies that act as ‘intermediaries’ or ‘platforms’ in their role of connecting consumers with goods, services, content, or are there any proposals for such regulation? Include any proposals or legislation regulating social media platforms in relation to online content or safety.
There are no specific regulations governing intermediaries. Platforms selling goods or services must ensure that the products available on their platform abide by the regulations of the MRO as well as the various relevant government authorities that regulate the sale of certain goods and services.
Platforms must also keep in mind active data protection laws. The UAE has recently enacted Federal Decree-Law No.45/2021 on the Protection of Personal Data (the “PDPL”), which applies to establishments operating in the UAE, including free zones (except the Dubai International Financial Centre (“DIFC”) and Abu Dhabi Global Market (“ADGM”) free zones, which have their own data protection regulations). Platforms may need to comply with any active data protection regulations, especially if such products deal with sensitive or high-risk data. We expect these types of requirements to increase over time, especially as the implementation regulations to the PDPL are expected to be released imminently in the UAE.
This article focuses on UAE TMT Laws and Regulations.
BSA is a regional Law Firm in the Middle East with offices in the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia. As a full-service law firm our practice areas include litigation, arbitration and corporate services, including M&A, banking & finance, Intellectual Property, TMT, Fintech, employment and insurance.
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