Earlier this month, the National Media Council (NMC) released a set of Digital Media Regulations (the Digital Regulations) under the umbrella of Cabinet Resolution No. 23 of 2017 Concerning Media Content (the Media Resolution). The Digital Regulations are intended to apply to all online activity –- including online advertisement and promotion, publishing, news sites and sites selling or otherwise dealing in print, video and audio materials – and thereby further expressly expand upon the digital ambit of UAE media-specific regulation. While the Digital Regulations are brief, they establish some important licensing and compliance related requirements for websites and social media users going forward. We discuss some of the key elements below.
The Digital Regulations establish a licensing and compliance framework for digital media activities in the UAE. Moreover, they can effectively be seen as a type of "code of practice" for online activity – indeed, in many ways they uphold legal and regulatory standards already contemplated from a media and content standpoint under other UAE laws and regulations, such as the UAE Penal Code, the Cybercrimes Law, the Press Law and media free zone regimes. For example, the Digital Regulations are aimed at supporting and promoting the digital media industry, reinforcing respect for religious, cultural and social values prevailing in the UAE and protecting community members by requiring balanced, responsible and impartial media content.
The Digital Regulations apply to all electronic media activities carried out in the UAE, both onshore and in free zones. Specifically, the Digital Regulations capture any online activity that involves digital promotion / advertisement, news websites, digital publishing activities and the presenting and selling of print, video or audio materials. Therefore, companies or individuals based onshore and in free zones carrying out these types of activities will be required to comply with the licensing and other obligations established under the Digital Regulations (discussed in further detail below).
The Digital Regulations have exemptions for school and government websites (which may, however, be required to comply with alternative resolutions which may be issued by the NMC). So-called "traditional mass media" outlets (such as newspapers and magazines, television and radio) will need to ensure that their websites are duly licensed under the Digital Regulations, in addition to continuing to ensure compliance with the wider existing applicable UAE media and licensing framework pursuant to which they operate.
The Digital Regulations also address personal websites, blogs and social media platforms. Specifically, they will apply to users whose websites or blogs involve online commercial activity, including sales and promotion. Therefore, so-called social media influencers who frequently promote or advertise products through their social media accounts may be caught by the Digital Regulations and therefore be required to obtain a licence. It is unclear, however, exactly when this threshold will be met – especially when referring to social media activity. The Digital Regulations require that the promotional or advertorial messages be sent from a "recognised" social media account but do not quantify how this will be assessed. For example, does a social media user with one million followers, posting information about an experience with a product or service, fall within the parameters of the licensing requirements? Or would a greater number of followers or more overt type of promotional activity be required? Moreover, it is not clear if the social media users need to actually be paid for promoting or advertising products online to be caught by the new requirements or if the accrual to them of other benefits (e.g. free products, gifts or other "in kind" benefits) would also trigger the licensing requirements of the Digital Regulations. It is anticipated that further interpretive guidance will be issued by the NMC in due course.
Licensing process and fees
All legal or natural persons engaging in the digital media activities caught under the scope of the Digital Regulations will require a licence from the NMC to continue carrying on these activities. In addition to submitting a licence application form and any other required documentation as requested by the NMC and paying the required fees, licence applicants will need to appoint a so-called "responsible manager" to act as a representative before the NMC and other government entities. The responsible manager will also be tasked with supervising the content that is published on the website and its compliance with the Media Resolution, Digital Regulations and other regulations put in place by the NMC. The responsible manager's name must be published on the website or social media account.
Fees for obtaining a licence are determined by the type of online activity carried out by the entity or individual, and range between AED 1,000 to AED 15,000 for new licence applications and AED 500 to AED 15,000 for licence renewals. Licences are initially valid for one year and can be renewed, subject to approval by the NMC.
Compliance and penalties
The NMC has not formally set a deadline for compliance with the new requirements, and further it does not seem that the relevant subsidiary instruments required in order to comply (i.e. licence application forms, etc.) are yet available on the NMC website.
The Digital Regulations do not expressly contemplate penalties for non-compliance. However, they do expressly require compliance with other electronic media regulations in force. As such, penalties for non-compliance may derive from the Media Resolution or other regulations introduced in the future by the NMC. Again, it is anticipated that further guidance on this from the NMC will be provided in the near future.
While the Media Resolution expressly brought digital media into the scope of federally regulated content in the UAE, the Digital Regulations have introduced an additional layer of regulatory compliance in the UAE that targets a further specific set of online activities. Given the vast number of websites and social media accounts operating in the UAE, it will be interesting to see how the NMC will govern the licensing process and enforce the requirements under the Digital Regulations, while also enforcing the broader requirements of the Media Resolution.