BlackBerry caved to Saudi demands: rights group

BlackBerry has reportedly reached an agreement with Saudi Arabia to continue messaging services in the country. It's unclear what data will now be shared.

A Saudi customer is served in a mobile shop at a market in the capital Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Thursday. BlackBerry has reportedly reached an agreement with Saudi Arabia to continue messaging services in the country, a move that critics say aids the Saudi government in repression.

BlackBerry messenger services will continue in Saudi Arabia after the company reportedly satisfied the kingdom’s demands for data access.

It is unclear exactly what Saudi Arabia requested or what BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM) allowed. But it amounts to RIM caving in to Saudi Arabia and compromising the security of users' phone data, says Robert Guerra of Freedom House.

“RIM’s decision to capitulate so easily says that their corporate interests are most important,” says Mr. Guerra, the Internet freedom project director of the Washington-based watchdog group. “It’s all about business – they didn’t want to lose (a) market.”

RIM’s stock price on NASDAQ rose 1.12 percent Tuesday. Saudi Arabia has an estimated 700,000 BlackBerry users, many of whom see the tightly encrypted phones as a way to avoid government surveillance.

Saudi Arabia announced a ban originally to start Aug. 6, but delayed it until Tuesday as negotiations continued. The United Arab Emirates last week announced a ban on BlackBerry services starting Oct. 11 unless it can access encrypted messages, citing security concerns. Lebanon is also threatening a ban, while India has been in negotiations with the company for weeks.

The Wall Street Journal first reported Tuesday that Saudi Arabia and RIM had reached an agreement.

Saudi Arabia decided to allow BlackBerry services because of "positive developments in the completion of part of the regulatory requirements on the part of service providers," the country's Communication and Information Technology Commission, or CITC, told the Journal in an e-mail statement.

"CITC will now be able to monitor communications via messenger services,” an official at one Saudi-based mobile operator also told the Journal.

Saudi Arabia likely demanded that the BlackBerry server network be housed physically inside the country, instead of routing all calls though its headquarters in Canada, says Guerra of Freedom House.

“That means they give the country who asks for it not only the equipment, but they give them a copy of the encryption key. They are giving them the access to decode part of the voice and data streams,” according to Guerra.

Such privileges are already allowed in the United States and other Western countries, but Guerra says that Saudi Araba – ranked “Not Free” in the Freedom House 2010 world index – lacks the same standards of human rights, freedom of expression, and due process.

As the agreement between RIM and Saudi Arabia is unclear, Guerra says he is suspicious of how the Kingdom will actually use the information. The UAE’s ban was announced days after several youths were arrested for using BlackBerry messaging to organize a peaceful protest.

“Companies should not be complicit in repression. Which is what they’re doing,” says Guerra.

Not only RIM, but other companies and governments should stand up for privacy and Internet rights, argues the Center for Democracy and Technology. Canada, where RIM is based and provides more than 8,500 jobs, was silent on the BlackBerry affair.

"Companies like RIM need support in determining how to draw principled lines when responding to governmental requests that could compromise the security of their products or increase the human rights risk to their users. One lesson we should draw from RIM’s current challenge is that all companies should aggressively advocate for legal standards that respect human rights in all countries in which they operate, democratic and non-democratic alike," the Center for Democracy and Technology wrote in an Aug. 4 statement.

“This is the new China and Google story, except now it’s happening in the Middle East,” adds Guerra. “Google at least had a fight with China.”

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