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Cyber cafes work around the ban to provide VoIP services

By Asma Ali Zain and Sebugwaawo Ismail (Our staff reporters) / 2 April 2008

DUBAI/RAS AL KHAIMAH — Acting illegally, some Internet cafes are becoming the 'third service providers' in the UAE by offering VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) services to their loyal customers.

Though the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) has banned VoIP in the UAE, people, including Internet cafe owners, have found ways of getting around the ban and using the Internet to make cheap international calls.

Service providers Etisalat and du, however, conform to the TRA policies which automatically ban links leading to web sites offering free VoIP services. 

Last week in Ras Al Khaimah, after a tip-off, police warned owners of several Internet cafes against the use of "illegal calling cards" for making inexpensive international phone calls. Several violating cafes were also referred to the Public Prosecution for investigation.

Calling cards

'Calling cards', as they are popularly known as, are in fact 'credit cards' that are used to buy credit on international web sites so as to make calls, explained M.A, a user.

"Though normally such web sites in the UAE have proxy and are automatically blocked, people use a software to unblock the sites. The software (which can be downloaded from certain web sites) disables the proxy and enables the 'payment page' to pop up after which the web site can also be used to make international calls," he explained.

An Etisalat official said the service provider has no means of keeping a tab on illegal usage at least in homes. "VoIP is banned in the UAE and as a service provider, we are required to follow these instructions," he said.

"If people use such software on their personal PCs, it is very difficult to track it down," explained the official.

Wary of hefty fines

However, several Internet cafe owners in Sharjah Khaleej Times spoke with denied encouraging such illegal activity.

"I know that this is not allowed and I may face hefty fines to committing such an act. Why should I offer such services?" asked one cafe owner.

"I have installed the software on my computer after it was forwarded to me by a friend of mine. Though I know it is illegal, I have no choice but to use it to make cheap calls to my family back home," admitted another user on condition of anonymity.

"Calls to the US and Canada can be made at a minimal cost through these web sites," he added.

Meanwhile, a senior officer of the Ras Al Khaimah Police said that owners of Internet cafes have been reported on several occasions for using the calling cards to allow their customers to make international calls illegally. He said calling cards are very popular among Asian expatriates. He said it is illegal to use these cards as it is a violation of the country's laws.

The officer said the police have intensified campaigns and are now keeping a close watch on the Internet cafes to nab all violators. He also warned them of tough punishments.

No such complaints

Officials from the Sharjah Police said that they have not received any such complaints. "We normally carry out surprise raids on Internet cafes to check cyber crimes and misuse of the Internet, especially by children, but we have not come across any such reports on VoIP. Since we have been alerted now, we will keep a tab on it," said an official.

An official from the Dubai Police said that they too have not received any reports of this practice.

"It is difficult for the police to track down people who make illegal calls. We do conduct surprise raids on Internet cafes, but we can take action only if we receive a complaint or learn about such violations through tip-offs. — With inputs from Afkar Abdullah and Amira Agarib


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