The release of a controversial “middle finger” emoji character could spell legal trouble for users in the United Arab Emirates.

It has been reported that Microsoft’s Windows 10 operating system will be the first major software release to include the emoji officially known as “Reversed Hand With Middle Finger Extended.” Emoji are the standardised set of characters available across a range of platforms as a substitute for words, phrases or text/punctuation-based emoticons. While the icon has been available for use by developers for some time, Apple, Google and other companies have not yet implemented Reversed Hand With Middle Finger Extended in their available typefaces.

The symbol is acknowledged in Emojipedia, the definitive guide to emojis and their meanings, as being “used in western cultures as a rude or insulting gesture.” It is also referred to as “Middle Finger Emoji”, “Rude Finger Emoji” and “Flipping The Bird Emoji”.

The issue for users in the UAE (and potentially other countries in the region) is that criminal law is greatly influenced by Shariah, the religious law and moral code of Islam. According to the UAE Penal Code, any person who “disgraces the honour or modesty of another” by any means (including a gesture) may be subject to a fine or imprisonment of up to one year. The penalties are increased if the abuse is directed at a public official or if it harms the reputation of a family. Publication in a newspaper or any printed media is deemed an aggravating offence.

There are equivalent offences for insulting a person or public official by way of a computer network or information technology means under the UAE Cyber Crimes Law. As such, while it has long been acknowledged by guidebooks and local legal advisers that a physical hand gesture could land individuals in trouble, social media users will now have to take care when using potentially offensive symbols in conversations or posts within the UAE.

Following on from the widely-reported case of cyber slander on Facebook that resulted in the arrest of a US national on his arrival in Abu Dhabi and the local telecommunications regulator’s issuance of a series of white papers on social media usage in the context of local laws and customs, it is apparent that employers, employees and visitors should all be aware of the particular risks of using social media in the Middle East.

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