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BlackBerry In A Jam


The BlackBerry smart phone's unique data encryption standards have made it a must-have by business executives, government officials, and others concerned about just who might be monitoring their communications. But those standards are putting BlackBerry's manufacturer, Research in Motion, into hot water with governments around the world. VOA's Doug Bernard has this look.

The business-friendly United Arab Emirates kicked it off - to the surprise of many. On August 1, the announcement came from Abu Dhabi that it will suspend BlackBerry Messenger - also known as BBM - as well as BlackBerry email and mobile browsing services starting in October. The reason: the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority there said the services pose a security threat because data sent with the BlackBerry is encrypted and stored abroad.

Saudi Arabia, the Arab world's largest economy, soon followed suit, ordering phones operating within the kingdom to stop BBM beginning August 6.

India and Indonesia were next up. Officials in Jakarta issued conflicting statements as to whether the BlackBerry would face a similar ban, while India asked Research in Motion to host a data server in that country, or face a possible ban.

It is not an easy time for the BlackBerry.

David Callaway is editor-in-chief of MarketWatch.com, a financial news website. "The future is a little hazier for Research in Motion these days," says Callaway, referring both to the BlackBerry's dwindling market share and increasing government pressure.

"I think what's happening is that one of them reached out and the others responded by making their concerns public. The BlackBerry is still the most popular device in those countries, at least by the people that they're most eager to control," says Callaway.

The reason cited by each of the nations considering a ban is security: that encrypted data stored on servers in another nation may make it easier for terrorists to plot and execute an attack. However human rights groups see a different concern at work, noting that the BlackBerry makes it much more difficult for repressive regimes to track and monitor freedom and democracy advocates.

News reports suggest Research in Motion may be working on a deal with Saudi Arabia to offer some increased monitoring functions in exchange for lifting the ban. Such a deal, in Callaway's opinion, would not be a good thing - either for Research in Motion or for the larger issue of free communications.

"I think if you see RIM buckle under to these demands, you're going to see other countries making demands from other technology folks," he says. "We saw the issues with Google and China earlier this year...now if we start seeing BlackBerry knuckle under, I think you're going to see a lot of these countries, under the guise of stopping terrorism, really make a leap for more control over technological innovation."

The US State Department has waded into the issue, in part because of free speech issues and in some measure because many US diplomats use the BlackBerry. "We are taking time to consult and analyze the full range of interests and issues at stake," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton because we know that there is a legitimate security concern, but there's also a legitimate right of free use and access."

You can learn much more about mobile phones, freedom and the Internet by visiting VOA's Digital Frontiers.

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

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