Internet freedom is a key aspect of the academic freedom promised to us as students at NYU Abu Dhabi. The NYUAD website states, “Students and faculty at NYU Abu Dhabi have access to the same research and educational materials they currently enjoy at NYU New York, including unrestricted access to the internet.”
Despite these promises, NYUAD students do not have access to the same high-quality internet services available to NYU students in New York. Since 2014, NYUAD students have experienced difficulties when calling friends and family back home through Skype, Viber and FaceTime. More recently, students have been unable to place WhatsApp and Snapchat calls. These free internet phone services are known as Voice over Internet Protocols, or VoIPs. UAE’s internet providers Etisalat and du do not support the use of VoIPs.
UAE’s restrictions on internet access are stipulated by the Telecom Regulatory Authority, which blocks content that violates the country’s ethics, morals and laws. It is unclear how this rationale extends to a ban on VoIPs, which are popular in the UAE, in part because of its large expat population.
Debate around the use of VoIPs in the UAE first arose in 2010, when Blackberry users were suddenly unable to use services such as Blackberry Messenger. In 2014, users reported encountering restrictions on the previously available VoIP services. The TRA released a statement declaring that the VoIP regulations were put in place due to licensing restrictions. At present, only Etisalat and du have been licensed to provide telecommunication services in the UAE.
"Unrestricted internet was one of the key tenets of us coming here; restrictions are at odds with that premise.”
Abdulla Hashim, senior vice president of digital services at Etisalat, affirmed that the ban on VoIP services is “not a telecom operator’s concern ... We work with the laws [set] by TRA.”
Etisalat has a special relationship with NYUAD. The company is currently the official provider for telecommunication services at NYUAD and the Executive Vice President of network technology strategy in Etisalat Group Nasser Salim has been a member of the Network Security Advisory Board Member for NYUAD since 2013.
Some believe that these restrictions on VoIP services in the UAE stand in the way of NYUAD’s mission. While the first four classes enjoyed unconstrained internet access in Sama Tower, students have been confronted with VoIP limitations on Saadiyat. The unreliability of VoIP services makes it difficult for classes to have online video conferences with individuals abroad. Students who need to use VoIP services for online interviews are also disadvantaged.
Morgante Pell, a senior majoring in Computer Science, stated that he has previously brought this issue up with NYUAD Student Government.
“[VoIP restrictions] did not apply to us when we lived in Sama Tower. NYUAD having uncensored internet is a key part of the pitch for coming here,” said Pell. “It's factually untrue at this point. Unrestricted internet was one of the key tenets of us coming here and the restrictions are at odds with that premise.”
Student Government Vice President Quan Vuong elaborated on the actions taken by Student Government in response to concerns about internet access.
“There has been an initiative to create an IT committee this semester that was mostly due to the desire of the IT Department to have student feedback on their new plan about internet access on campus,” said Vuong.
Beyond addressing student concerns about internet speed, a committee could serve as a platform to address the issue of restricted internet access. IT has previously suggested that users who wish to make use of VoIPs do it through the NYU proxy. This suggestion does not allow students to access all VoIP services.
“I don't have a problem with what we are provided with here at NYUAD. Sure, it's a change from when we lived in Sama, but sacrificing Viber and WhatsApp Calling features isn't so bad” as “there are other viable alternatives,” said junior Alyssa Ferreira.
Ferreira additionally stated that she has never had problems with accessing information needed for academic purposes.
“NYUAD is operating under a complicated system, having to maintain the academic quality of NYU NY while still following the laws of the UAE.”
IT provided no official statement when approached for comment.
"While students profit from academic freedom within the classroom, freedoms are limited if they do not extend online."
Students at NYU Shanghai can access the internet without restrictions. Although China has heavier internet controls, both the Pudong campus and the Green Center Towers residences make use of the NYU virtual private network, which starts operating automatically when the wireless connection is established.
Kiril Bolotnikov, an NYU Shanghai student who is studying in Abu Dhabi this semester, shared his experience with internet access in China.
“I've never had any trouble with [NYU Shanghai’s] internet on campus or in the residence hall; there's a VPN pre-installed into the network that lets us get over the Great Firewall and I don't know that anyone has had any issues with it,” said Bolotnikov.
On the other hand, students in Shanghai experience some internet restrictions off-campus.
“Off-campus, the firewall prevails, and there are all kinds of restrictions on social media and I think certain news sites. We do have the option of installing the VPN on our own devices and logging into it each time we want to access something otherwise restricted, but it drains battery or phone data much faster and can be a lot more unreliable; if the WiFi isn't perfect it's pretty common for the VPN to cut out,” added Bolotnikov.
These VPN services are illegal under UAE law. Despite this ban, the UAE is currently among the top 20 countries with the most traffic transferred through VPN. China takes second place on the list. In China, the use of a VPN service is legal for individuals and companies that are registered with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
Campus-wide restrictions on VoIP services compromise the high standard of resources that students and faculty are promised as part of the NYUAD vision statement. While no regulations appear to have been placed on the content that can be accessed through web browsers at Saadiyat, NYUAD fails to meet the standard of internet freedom available to students at NYU New York.
These restrictions raise questions as to the nature of the relationship between the UAE and NYU. NYUAD has previously been praised for acting as an oasis of academic freedom within the UAE. While students profit from this unique relationship within the classroom, freedoms are limited if they do not extend online.
Valentin Benoit is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]