UAE's BlackBerry ban: Why is Canada silent?

The UAE's BlackBerry ban drew condemnation from freedom monitors and the US government, but nothing from Canada, BlackBerry's home country. 'Maybe it’s summer and they’re away,' says one watchdog.

By , Staff writer

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    A man talks on his smart phone at the Dubai Financial Market in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The UAE announced a BlackBerry ban on Sunday, citing national security concerns because the devices operate beyond the government's ability to monitor their use.
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The UAE’s proposed BlackBerry ban is sparking numerous statements of support for the phone’s Canada-based maker Research in Motion (RIM), except from the one entity expected to be the first to speak up: the Canadian government.

Human rights organizations have joined the United States in condemning the decision of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to suspend Blackberry Messenger, Blackberry E-mail, and Blackberry Web-browsing services starting Oct. 11 unless it can access encrypted messages, citing security concerns.

But the Canadian government is mum.

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“The US can’t be doing this all the time. Where was the Canadian government?” says Robert Guerra, the Internet freedom project director at Washington-based Freedom House. “The Canadian government has traditionally been a big supporter of human rights. I’m surprised. Maybe it’s summer and they’re away.”

“I think this is a glaring absence and it’s part of a lamentable lack of attention this government has given to cyberspace,” says Ronald Deibert, director of The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

Based in Waterloo, Ontario, RIM employs 8,576 people in Canada among 12,000 people worldwide. Ranked one of Canada’s Top 100 Employers in 2010, the company created 2,746 new jobs in Canada last year despite the global economic slump.

“I’m frankly surprised, given the economics – the number of jobs it provides in Canada – that the Canadian government is not coming out more strongly,” adds Mr. Guerra.

When California-based search engine Google Inc. came under pressure from China in January to censor web searches, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to Google’s defense with a fierce condemnation of Internet censorship.

US comes out strong

It was the US again who came to RIM’s defense. "We are disappointed at this announcement," US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters Monday during a press briefing.

“It’s not about a Canadian company," he said. "It’s about what we think is an important element of democracy, human rights, and freedom of information and the flow of information in the 21st century. It was the essence of the Secretary’s Internet freedom speech and it’s an argument that we make to countries like Iran and China. It’s also an argument that we make to friends and allies of ours like the UAE.”

The statements drew immediate fire from the UAE.

The US' remarks were “disappointing and contradict the US Government’s own approach to telecommunications regulation,” Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba said in a statement Monday. “The UAE is asking for exactly the same regulatory compliance – and with the same principles of judicial and regulatory oversight – that BlackBerry grants the US and other Governments and nothing more."

The UAE’s director general of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, Mohammed Nasser Al Ghanim, said Tuesday that the dispute arose over the government's insistence on keeping the BlackBerry server housed physically inside the UAE.

Mr. Ghanim said that other countries are given this right, according to an article in the state-run Emirates News Agency (WAM).

BlackBerry, for its part, isn’t giving details on the dispute, or on what other agreements it has with individual governments. “RIM does not disclose confidential regulatory discussions that take place with any government,” the company said in a statement Monday.

Motives suspect

However, the UAE’s real motives are suspect to the watchdog Freedom House. The Blackberry ban was announced days after several youths were arrested for using BlackBerry messaging to organize a peaceful protest, and just a year after the government attempted to disguise spyware as a Blackberry software update.

The ban would affect the UAE’s estimated 500,000 BlackBerry users, who make up some 11 percent of the cellphone market in the Gulf nation. Additionally, the ban would also affect anyone visiting the UAE with a BlackBerry.

BlackBerry devices were introduced in the UAE in 2006, but its encryption method enables users to send messages that can’t be monitored as allowed under the country’s 2007 Safety, Emergency and National Security rules.

Saudi Arabia has also indicated it will ban the device, leading Freedom House today to blast both countries for the “clear attempt to restrict freedom of expression and association.” Both countries are ranked as "Not Free" in Freedom in the World 2010, Freedom House's survey of political rights and civil liberties.

That’s another factor as to why the UAE and Saudi Arabia should not necessarily be treated the same as the US and other governments, says Freedom House’s Robert Guerra. “The rule of law and the legal processes in the US are very different than in other countries,” he says, citing the great number of independent freedom monitors and the healthy debate in Congress over the extent of the US government’s spying on citizens.

Indeed, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont said in a July 29 statement that the plans to change the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to cover emails and Web surfing “raises serious privacy and civil liberties concerns.”

Yet where is that debate inside Canada’s government, asks Professor Deibert of the University of Toronto.

“The government is on the sidelines,” he says. “In Canada, there’s not been a clear articulation of what our policies should be with respect to cyberspace.”

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