The United Arab Emirates has outlined plans to block BlackBerry email, messaging and Web browsing services, citing a potential security threat because encrypted data sent on the devices is moved abroad where it cannot be monitored for illegal activity.
The decision raises questions about the further control of content deemed politically or morally objectionable by governments in the region. This argument could be supported by the fact Saudi Arabia immediately followed the UAE move.
BlackBerry phones have a strong following in the region, not only among foreign professionals in commercial centres such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and this type of crackdown that could jeopardize efforts to establish the UAE as an international business hub. The relatively secure communication channels provided by BlackBerry devices are reportedly seen by the youth market as a way to avoid unwanted government attention.
The decision will prevent hundreds of thousands of BlackBerry users from accessing email and the Web on their handsets starting in October. It’s unclear yet whether the ban will be extended to foreign visitors with roaming services, including the roughly 100,000 passengers who pass through the region’s busiest airport in Dubai each day, but that differentiation may not be so easy to achieve.
Last year, BlackBerry maker Research in Motion Ltd. criticized a directive by the UAE mobile operator Etisalat telling the company’s BlackBerry users to install software described as an ‘upgrade’ required for ‘service enhancements.’
RIM said tests showed it was, in fact, spyware that could allow outsiders to access private information stored on the phones. It strongly distanced itself from Etisalat’s decision and even explained to users how to remove the software.
Skeptics might be quick to say that the latest move is ‘payback’ for RIM’s recalcitrance but the stated reason other smartphones are not being singled out is that they do not automatically sends users’ data to servers overseas.
Government censors in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as in many other countries, routinely block access to websites and other media deemed to carry content that runs contrary to the nations’ conservative Islamic values or that could stoke political unrest.
Regulators in the UAE say BlackBerry devices operate outside a set of national security and safety laws that “allow users to act without any legal accountability, causing judicial, social and national security concerns.”
Users like the RIM system because it is seen as more secure, but it also makes BlackBerry messages far harder to monitor than ones sent through domestic servers that authorities can more easily tap into and there probably lies the root of the UAE concerns.
The big question for regional CSPs is the impact the ban will have on their revenues, the flow-on effect to RIM and whether other governments in the region and elsewhere will be tempted to follow suit. It also touches on issues raised in a previous blog. The repercussions for our industry could be enormous.