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August 02, 2010

UAE Answers US Blackberry Criticism

The United Arab Emirates says it is disappointed with the United States for criticizing its decision to ban key Blackberry communication services.

United Arab Emirate officials say they plan to suspend Blackberry Messenger, email and Web browser functions, saying they pose a threat to national security because they cannot be monitored.

On Monday, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called the UAE move to restrict Blackberry use a "dangerous precedent" in limiting freedom of information.

But UAE officials say his comments contradict America's approach to telecommunications regulation.  

UAE Ambassador to the United States, Yousef al Otaiba, is quoted by the national news agency WAM as saying his country requires compliance with its laws for the same reason the United States has regulatory laws.  He says the United Arab Emirates is trying to protect national security and assist in law enforcement.

But critics of UAE information laws, such as Human Rights Watch and Reporters without Borders, say the country's conservative government tries to control content it deems politically or morally objectionable.

The director general of the UAE Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, Mohammed Nasser al Ghanim, points out his government has been trying to work out a way to monitor Blackberry output with the device's developer, Research In Motion.  He says officials only agreed to a ban after a compromise could not be reached.

"The suspension is a result of failed ongoing attempts dating back to 2007 to bring Blackberry services in the UAE in line with the telecommunications regulations," he said. "Under the current form, certain Blackberry services allow users to act without any legal accountability causing judicial, social and national security concerns in the UAE."

Emirati journalist Sultan al Qassemi believes the United Arab Emirates will work out an agreement with Research In Motion before the ban is scheduled to begin on October 11.

"I think the UAE wants to sort this out.  We want to be a business friendly country," he said.  "The TRA understands that Blackberry is a very important business tool to attract businessmen and banks.  You cannot but have this service functioning in the UAE; however, there are security concerns.  We have challenges in the region, including terrorism."

Despite the risks, al Qassemi says most people in the country are against the restrictions. "There has been a huge outburst on Twitter.  A lot of people are expressing their disappointment.  I called Research in Motion an arrogant company in one of my tweets and a lot of people were very upset with me.  There is a lot of emotional attachment to Blackberry.  The vast majority of people use it for legal activities, but you have a minority who the government is worried about and that is where this ban came from," he said.

At the moment, it is impossible for countries like the United Arab Emirates to monitor Blackberry output because the handsets automatically send encrypted data to computer servers abroad.  There are an estimated 500,000 Blackberry users in the UAE.