Stephen Cooper

Stephen Cooper

December 25, 2017

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The Sultanate of Oman is an absolute monarchy. That means that there is no democracy and laws can be changed immediately on the order of the Sultan. The general legal climate in Oman, as in the rest of the Arabian Peninsular, does not encourage freedom of expression. You have to be very careful in Oman about the websites you visit and the things you write there. Laws are very vaguely framed in Oman, so the authorities pretty much have free reign to interpret them however they wish. Being a foreigner in the country offers no protection from arrest or prosecution.

The main purpose of all media controls in the Sultanate is to maintain the moral and religious standards of the population. These controls do not just apply to internet access – TV and music are also subject to tight censorship and phone calls are frequently monitored for seditious or blasphemous content. The second aim of the authorities is to stamp out potential political unrest. All government workers are direct employees of the Sultan. One one of their main tasks is to keep him in power without any restrictions on his rights to control the population. Thus, even a favorable comment about democratic procedures abroad can get you into trouble.

Oman also bans internet telephony. This is because the only phone provider for landlines in Oman is state-owned. Mobile services are a lot more deregulated. Omanis can get their 3G service from Omanmobile, a division of Omantel (the state-owned phone company), or from Ooredoo, which is owned by the Sultan of Qatar. He has similar views on freedom of expression to his Omani counterpart. You can access mobile networks of two other companies in Oman (Renna and Frendi), but neither offers data packages.

Skype is not available in Oman. Neither are Viber, IMO, or Google Hangouts. Chat systems in social media sites are available, but providers disable their voice and video functions. Surprisingly, WhatsApp and Signal work occasionally, although no one can predict when they will work and when they won’t.

You can access banned sites if you can circumvent the blocks that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) implement. However, Oman blocks both proxy servers and the Tor network. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are allowed and widely used in the country. Thus, if you want access to better entertainment, or to visit dating, porn, gay, gambling, or political sites, you had better use a VPN.

You can read more about how the Omani government implements its internet controls further on in this report. However, first let’s take a look at our five best VPNs for Oman.

Internet Controls in Oman

Keeping internet access in the hands of just the state-owned telephone company, and a mobile company that a friend of the Sultan owns makes centralizing internet controls easy. You can only connect to the internet with your computer or phone if you have a contract with an ISP – which means Omantel or Ooredoo.

WiFi hotspots are non-existent in the Sultanate. You can’t gain anonymity by surfing at an internet café. The owners of these establishments have to get a licence to operate. In order to get that permit, owners have to submit floor-plans of the space, showing that all screens are visible by a centrally-located human vigilator. Internet cafes also have to install network proxies, which block access to banned sites. They’re also required to log all the activities of their computers.

ISPs in Oman operate blacklists of sites. These block access to a long list of addresses. Individual webpages on permitted sites can also be blocked for delivery if they contain images of indecently dressed people, or include any of a list of alert keywords. A piece of software that was produced by a division of McAfee in the United States carries out these checks. This filtering program is called SmartFilter. Just about every government in the Middle East enforces its use, including Oman.

VPNs in Oman

The use of VPNs is not illegal in Oman. Indeed, a large percentage of the population uses them. However, as with all things in Oman, you have to be careful what you talk about and to whom. That means that asking around for help to get your VPN working could be risky. Therefore, it’s important to get a VPN that is self-installing and easy to use. A strong customer support team at the VPN company is also important. That will enable you to get advice from experts who won’t report your activities to the Omani government.

VPNs get around ISPs’ basic blacklist strategy because they obscure the destination address of the traffic they carry. The VPN client software on your computer establishes a connection with its home server. This is called a “tunnel.” The client and server encrypt all communications. That encryption even covers the header information, which contains the source and destination addresses.

The address of the VPN server will not be on the blacklist. When your messages get to the server, software there strips off the outer layer and sends the originally protected packet on its way to its destination. The tunnel doesn’t protect your traffic on its entire journey, just on the stretch between your computer and the VPN server. Thankfully, this security is enough to bamboozle an ISP’s internet access controls.

The VPN server mediates all of the traffic that leaves and enters your computer. Responses to your requests come back through the tunnel. The SmartFilter program can’t read fully encrypted packets, so can’t detect any illicit images or text in those webpages. Thus, the VPN gets around both blacklist blocks and content scans.

Censored Entertainment in Oman

There are 13 TV stations in Oman. All of their shows are heavily censored. The same is true of the music that is available in the country. Movies and shows are edited to remove offensive content, in many cases to the point of being unwatchable. Furthermore, many popular TV shows around the world are just not shown in Oman.

Fortunately, you can access entertainment from other countries over the internet. There is even an Omani branch of Netflix. However, you don’t get the version they show in the US. The entertainment library that you get access to with Netflix in Oman is pretty similar to the shows that you see on TV there. If you have a Netflix subscription in Oman, you can watch Netflix anywhere in the world. The service is different in each country – the library you get access to depends on your location when you enter the website. As such, if you’re in the US when you log in, you get access to all of the great entertainment available to customers in that country.

You can watch US Netflix in Oman if you can fool the Netflix server into thinking you’re in the US. Thankfully, VPNs can make you appear to be in another country. Most streaming services impose regional restrictions that limit access to people in the same country as the service. Unfortunately, these services realize that people use VPNs to bypass access controls. Thus they try to detect and block VPN traffic. Some government internet control systems also search for VPNs.

Having to evade detection spurred VPN companies to develop cloaking technologies. Systems that block VPN traffic also log the IP addresses of VPNs that they identify. Thus keeping ahead of restrictions is a complicated job. Not all VPNs engage in the fight, so not all VPNs can help you access foreign entertainment from Oman. The five best VPNs for Oman on our list are all adept at getting into streaming services and hiding their identities when their traffic passes through government-mandated inspections.

Conclusion

You may grow impatient with the controls on what you can see on the internet in Oman and hope to access banned websites. All of the VPNs in this review work well in Oman. They will protect your identity as well as get you access to overseas streaming services. Remember to cover your tracks in Oman with a VPN.

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