Monday, August 02, 2010

Blackberry ban set for UAE

A number of Middle Eastern countries heavily censor the Internet and restrict telecommunications. Outside of China, North Korea and Cuba, countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also control what may be accessed online. But one country in particular has stirred controversy after an announcement to block services to the popular Blackberry mobile device.

Last year Etisalat, the United Arab Emirates' telecoms operator, tried to encourage its BlackBerry customers to upgrade their software. But it later emerged the "upgrade" was spyware, which Research In Motion, the maker of BlackBerry, said it had not authorised. Etisalat remained quiet and the issue eventually died down.

But one year on the United Arab Emirates says it will suspend BlackBerry e-mail, messenger and web-browsing services from the 11th October citing national security concerns and saying that the devices operate outside its laws. Saudi Arabia appears to be following suit, with an official at Saudi Telecom, a state-controlled company, saying the kingdom was also banning BlackBerry messenger services. The move comes soon after India also raised similar concerns and will be troubling for the Canadian company Research in Motion [RIM] which is behind the Blackberry brand.

BlackBerry services, such as e-mail and instant messaging, use internal encrypted networks that are difficult for governments to monitor. Abdulrahman Mazi, a board member at Saudi Telecom, has told the Al Arabiya satellite channel that he hoped the moves would pressure RIM into taking steps to "provide the information when needed". 

In July, the Indian government renewed a threat to ban BlackBerry services unless RIM gave it access to data transferred by its secured messaging system. This was resolved last week after the head of internal security in India said RIM agreed to address concerns over the possible use of its data services by terrorists [Economic Times].

The UAE move will likely frustrate the 500,000 or so BlackBerry users in the emirate, which is the region's business and tourism hub. The block on services will also affect roaming devices so visitors to the country will be affected too. 

Mohammed al-Ghanim, director-general of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, has dismissed suggestions that the regulator's decision had anything to do with censorship. "It is about regulatory compliance and we are not asking for RIM to do anything that is not apparently being done in developed nations or so-called open countries around the world," he said.

However, the ban has angered not only Blackberry users but also the US state department which has said the move undermines the free flow of information. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said while the UAE has security needs, cutting off the services harms the free flow of information and eliminates an innovative sector of the economy. "Restricting technologies in the 21st century we think is a move in the wrong direction," he said, adding that the United States is "disappointed at the announcement" [AFP / FT / CNN / BBC]. "We will be clarifying with the UAE" the reasons for announcement, Crowley told reporters on Monday, and said the ban "sets a dangerous precedent."

Some Blackberry owners are beginning to jump ship according to some recently released statistics [intomobile]. It is not clear whether the UAE decision will further affect the downturn of the once popular Blackberry, a mainstay of the international businessman.

The blocks in the UAE is perhaps not surprising. The United Arab Emirates aggressively censors the Internet using Secure Computing's solution. The nation's ISPs Etisalat and du (telco) ban pornography, politically sensitive material, Israeli domains, and anything perceived to be contrary to the moral values of the UAE. In addition many VoIP services such as Skype are blocked [Internet Censorship].

Christopher Davidson an academic from Durham, England who is familiar with the Middle East told CNN's Becky Anderson that he thought the move rather sinister  especially after the underhand attempt to install spyware on people's phones last year. This was more a move to control political activists in a country run by an unelected leadership, he said.

It appears that the block on Blackberry services will be an issue for a greater number of users in the coming months. Kuwait has also threatened a ban and Bahrain has already limited services. RIM has so far not been greatly affected on the markets with only a slight 0.75% drop in its stocks to $57.07, but well of its high of $88 a share.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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