Two Gulf states to ban some Blackberry functions

BlackBerry Bold 9000 The UAE denies censorship is involved

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Two Gulf states have announced bans on some functions of the Blackberry mobile phone, claiming security concerns.

The United Arab Emirates is to block sending e-mails, accessing the internet, and delivering instant messages to other Blackberry handsets.

Saudi Arabia is to prevent the use of the Blackberry-to-Blackberry instant messaging service.

Both nations are unhappy that they are unable to monitor such communications via the handsets.

This is because the Blackberry handsets automatically send the encrypted data to computer servers outside the two countries.

The UAE ban is to start in October, while the Saudi move will begin later this month.

Abdulrahman Mazi, a board member of state-controlled Saudi Telecom, has admitted that the decision is intended to put pressure on Blackberry's Canadian owner, Research in Motion (RIM), to release data from users' communications "when needed".

The UAE's telecoms regulator, TRA, said the lack of compliance with local laws raised "judicial, social and national security concerns".

Gulf expert Jim Crane on the "spat" between Blackberry and the UAE

RIM said in a statement that it "does not disclose confidential regulatory discussions that take place with any government".

"However, RIM assures its customers that it is committed to continue delivering highly secure and innovative products that satisfy the needs of both customers and governments."

There are an estimated 500,000 Blackberry users in the UAE, and 400,000 in Saudi Arabia.

Censorship denial

TRA said some Blackberry services would be suspended from 11 October "until a solution compatible with local laws is reached".

"It's a final decision but we are continuing discussions with them," said TRA director general Mohammed al-Ghanem.

Analysis

Ben Thompson

By Ben Thompson, BBC Middle East business reporter

A year after the UAE's botched attempt to download spyware onto Blackberries, it seems the government is still not happy that it can't monitor e-mails sent and received by Blackberry users.

So it now says it will ban the devices altogether.

But given the popularity of the Blackberry here, an outright ban will be controversial.

Forums and blogs already talk of a 'step back to the Stone Age' and 'another PR disaster for the UAE'.

But is an outright ban actually likely?

Many here see this as little more than a power play from the UAE authorities - an attempt to force RIM to hand over the security codes or face losing a lucrative market.

But for RIM, it's unlikely to be too concerned. Whilst the UAE is a wealthy and lucrative market, it's also a small one.

"Censorship has got nothing to do with this. What we are talking about is suspension due to the lack of compliance with UAE telecommunications regulations."

It follows an alleged attempt by TRA last year to install spyware on Blackberry handsets.

And in 2007 RIM refused TRA access to the code for RIM's encrypted networks so it could monitor email and other data.

Power play?

Media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders told the BBC last week that while the UAE was playing a "technological leadership role in the Arab world", this was backed by "repressive laws" and a "general trend of intensified surveillance".

BBC Middle East business reporter Ben Thompson said the threat by the UAE was likely to be an attempt to wring concessions out of RIM.

"Many here see this as little more than a power play from the UAE authorities - an attempt to force RIM to handover the security codes or face losing a lucrative market," he said.

India has also raised security concerns over Blackberry data services, saying they could be exploited by militants.

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