Crime & Investigation

UCC Moves to Combat ‘VPN Criminality’

Some of the abusive posts by Ugandans on Facebook

The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has started developing capabilities to counter what an official described as “criminal behaviour” on social media facilitated by Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

When UCC last week ordered internet service providers to limit bandwidth to Facebook, information pills WhatsApp and Twitter, many social media enthusiasts downloaded VPNs to dodge the restriction.

A high ranking official now says the massive download of VPNs exposed internet service providers’ failure to upgrade their systems.

“Those VPNs are usually detected and blocked in advanced countries because people use them for criminal intentions. Here, if our internet service corporations were upgrading their systems, the VPNs, just like a virus, would have been blocked,” said a source who preferred anonymity so as to speak freely.

In the United Arab Emirates, use of Virtual Private Networks (VPN) is illegal and can be punishable under the law.

While the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority has always maintained that the use of VPN is against its policies, police recently cautioned that legal action can be taken under Law Number 9 against users of VPN.

VPN services are used in the UAE by some private individuals to access VoIP services and access some of the blocked websites.

“Tampering with the Internet network is a crime,” said Saeed Al Hajri, Director at the Cyber Crime division of Dubai Police.

He was responding to a question about how the police could trace offenders involved in online blackmailing and other Internet related crimes, if they do so by using a VPN service.

In Britain, government is strict on content on social media platforms. UK mobile phone operators began filtering Internet content in 2004 when Ofcom published a “UK code of practice for the self-regulation of new forms of content on mobiles”.

This provided a means of classifying mobile Internet content to enable consistency in filtering. All major UK operators now voluntarily filter content by default.

Way forward

A source at UCC says “we took seriously the downloading of VPN after our well-intentioned restriction. The internet service operators should ensure users who try to use VPNs are blocked. There is software that counters that criminal activity.”

Asked if internet operators have been notified about this requirement, the official observed: “Yes, we have been telling them but they are not responding. There is too much hate content on social media.”

The source further said “social media posts can be traced up 70 percent of their origin because we have partnerships with social media platforms. They can be traced. VPNs have no market in developed countries. We should not allow them here.”

Hate content

Liberals argue that censoring access to social media platforms deprives the public of its freedom of expression.

United States Secretary of State, John Kerry had to call President Museveni to expressed concern about the Government’s decision to “block several popular social media and mobile money sites starting on Election Day” and urged President Museveni to “end this blockage immediately.”

The free-thinking society believes in a free flow of ideas without limitations.

But overtime, even advanced countries like Britain have worked towards implementation of restrictions on access to internet content.

On 11 August 2011, following the widespread riots in England, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that Theresa May, the then Home secretary, would meet with executives of the Web companies Facebook and Twitter, as well as Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry Smartphone, to discuss possible measures to prevent troublemakers from using social media and other digital communications tools.

During a special debate on the riots, Mr. Cameron told Parliament: “Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.”

He added: “So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality”.


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