Saudi Arabia to enact first BlackBerry ban on Friday

With several other countries threatening a BlackBerry ban, the smartphone's parent company stands to lose 2 million of its 46 million users worldwide.

Manu Fernandez/AP/File
A BlackBerry smart phone is displayed at the Mobile World congress in Barcelona, Spain, in this Feb. 18 file photo. On Friday, Saudi Arabia will become the first foreign government to enact a BlackBerry ban.

On Friday, Saudi Arabia will become the first foreign government to enact a BlackBerry ban when it shuts down the phone’s instant messaging service.

Government officials in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) say they will shut off BlackBerry e-mail, messaging, and web browsing features on Oct. 11 if the government is not granted more access. Perhaps the greatest concern for the cellphone maker is that India, which constitutes one of the largest emerging markets and has 1 million BlackBerry users, is threatening to stop BlackBerry services as well.

Research in Motion (RIM), the Canada-based maker of the BlackBerry, stands to lose nearly 2 million of its 46 million worldwide customers if the standoff continues over giving foreign governments the ability to monitor communications on the highly encrypted smart phones.

Even with almost 5 percent of its business on the line, however, RIM is unlikely to back off, says Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at Dubai’s Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

“RIM is probably not going to budge on the issue, because if they start to make changes to their policy, then it’s susceptible to all policies being changed and manipulated in certain ways,” says Dr. Karasik. “They feel that their customer base is so strong that if they lose a couple of countries, it’s not going to affect them business-wise.”

Will RIM back down?

All of the countries threatening to ban BlackBerry services within their borders contend that the goal is to preserve national security – and that they merely want the same monitoring rights afforded to several Western countries. During the 2008 Mumbai attacks, for example, militants used BlackBerrys to communicate. Authorities in India and elsewhere feel that averting other such attacks in the future is linked to their capability to monitor suspicious communications.

In a statement, the UAE's director general of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), Mohammed Nasser Al Ghanim, said that the proposed ban was intended to "preserve the confidentiality of information and correspondence, commercial, official and personal data, and to protect the national economy and companies from any threats."

''First and foremost, this matter relates to the sovereignty of the state on its information as all 'BlackBerry' users from administrators, businessmen, and owners of companies need to keep their data and information within the state to preserve the confidentiality of information," said Mr. Ghanim.

Global security tool

Electronic surveillance is a tool used globally to maintain security, said Mark Rasch, former head of the computer crimes unit at the US Department of Justice in an article by Reuters.

“The ability to tap communications is a part of surveillance and intelligence and law enforcement all over the world,” he said.

UAE has said it is open to finding an alternative solution to banning BlackBerrys outright.

RIM has showed a willingness to make some concessions, such as putting a server in India. Industry experts also believe that RIM may have yielded to some concerns on China's part before introducing BlackBerrys there, reports the Associated Press.

But Mike Lazaridis, the company’s founder, has said he will not allow foreign governments to monitor messages sent on the BlackBerry network. Doing so would compromise RIM’s customer relationships, in particular with major companies and law-enforcement agencies that rely on the smart phones' encrypted data network.

“I am very empathetic to their concerns and what they go through,” Mr. Lazaridis told The New York Times. “But every country goes through these things. We have to be prepared for the ramifications of the decisions we make.”

'That's the cost of doing business in the UAE'

As RIM and the concerned governments work to come to an agreement, at least two telecommunications companies in the UAE have begun putting together plans that will allow BlackBerry users to easily switch to a new handset that will be unaffected by the ban – without hitting users' wallets too hard.

Still, that’s of little consolation to many of the 500,000 BlackBerry users in the UAE who don’t want to deal with the hassle of switching phones.

“There are a lot of businesspeople who are very angry about this, but that’s the cost of doing business in the UAE. That’s the position of the government," says Karasik. "There are certain rules and regulations that need to be followed, and you have to remember that the businesses are guests in the country, so they are subject to the laws of the state.”


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