News / Middle East

UAE BlackBerry Ban is Latest Clash Over Information Control

The United Arab Emirates has announced that it will block data communication services on BlackBerry smartphones starting on October 11. Regulators say BlackBerry's encryption system poses a security threat because it can be used by criminals and terrorists. The move is the latest conflict between governments and technology companies over the control of information in the Internet age.

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The announcement of a ban on BlackBerry services in the United Arab Emirates is having a chilling effect on sales.

Compu-Me is one of several mobile telephone shops at the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai.  

"I have spoken already to customers here; they are planning [to] shift to iPhones if BBM is closed," said Gilda Ducao, the customer service representative at the store.

The United Arab Emirates announced on Sunday that it will suspend BlackBerry Messenger, or BBM, as well as email and mobile browsing services starting in October.  The government's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority says the services posed a security threat.

Unlike Apple and Nokia smartphones, the data sent over Research in Motion's BlackBerry is encrypted and stored abroad.  Authorities in the UAE say they cannot access information needed for judicial investigations.

Canada-based Research in Motion, or RIM, disputes the UAE's assertion.  The company says it "respects both the regulatory requirements of government and the security and privacy needs of corporations and consumers."

It is not the first dispute between governments and communications firms over the control of information.  Recently, Internet giant Google had to remove its search engine from China, and Pakistan blocked the Internet social networking company Facebook over what authorities called blasphemy.

Ryan Radia is Associate Director of Technology Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C.  He says the difference is that the BlackBerry's reputation is based on its strong data protection.

"So the fact that the UAE is pressuring RIM to essentially create a back door around its encryption, may actually threaten the reputation of BlackBerry as the most secure smartphone platform," he said.

But the UAE's reputation could suffer too.  Dubai, Radia points out, is a major transit point for foreign travelers and an upscale shopping destination in the Middle East.

"The UAE certainly has a lot to lose here," he said. "Whenever a country imposes rules on business that hurts the business that makes it less appealing to consumers, there's a risk that, first of all, the businesses that do operate in the country will suffer.  There's also the risk that foreign businesses will pull out, will disengage."

A Saudi Arabian official has said that BlackBerry's messaging service might be blocked there.  India has also threatened a ban.

Critics say these governments are using concerns about terrorism to increase their political control.

But analyst Ryan Radia says that even if that is the case, governments could still lose because modern technology allows virtually anyone to circumvent the bans and use other encryption methods that are extremely difficult to break.


Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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