UAE moves to restrict BlackBerry use

By Jeffrey Fleishman
Los Angeles Times

CAIRO, Egypt – Citing concerns that terrorists and criminals could exploit telecommunications traffic in the Arab world’s financial hub, the United Arab Emirates said Sunday that it would suspend e-mail and Web browsing on BlackBerry services beginning in October.

Shortly after the UAE’s announcement, media reports quoted officials in Saudi Arabia as saying the kingdom would take similar steps to restrict features on the popular BlackBerry smartphones. The decisions could affect up to 1 million BlackBerry users in the region and possibly upset networking for business people and tourists.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia are increasingly worried about terrorism. But the religiously conservative and politically autocratic countries also want tighter controls on information and seek to limit communication options for opposition figures and human-rights activists. Both nations practice censorship and frequently filter websites deemed unacceptable by clerics and their Interior ministries.

The UAE’s Telecommunication Regulatory Authority said in a statement on its website that “today’s decision is based on the fact that, in their current form, certain BlackBerry services allow users to act without any legal accountability, causing judicial, social and national security concerns for the UAE.”

The authority’s director general, Mohamed Ghanim, said: “With no solution available and in the public interest, in order to affect resolution of this issue, as of Oct. 11, 2010, BlackBerry Messenger, BlackBerry e-mail and BlackBerry Web-browsing services will be suspended until an acceptable solution can be developed and applied.”

The measure stems from UAE authorities seeking stricter oversight of BlackBerry’s system of encrypting data, which provides security for users but is difficult for intelligence agencies to track. It is not expected to affect other devices, such as Apple’s iPhone.

As news of possible restrictions leaked out last week, Reporters Without Borders, which lobbies for wider press freedoms, criticized the UAE.

“The government regards the services offered by BlackBerry, especially its instant messaging, as an obstacle to its goal of reinforcing censorship, filtering and surveillance,” said the organization. “We fear that this statement is designed to prepare the public for a total ban or block on BlackBerry. This would be a serious mistake and utterly inconsistent on the part of a country that aspires to be a technological leader in the Arab world.”

Reporters Without Borders said that in recent weeks the UAE had been “harassing and arresting” BlackBerry Messenger users for attempting to organize a demonstration against higher gasoline prices.
Political analyst Ibtisam Ketbi told Dubai media that the UAE government was looking to clamp down on political expression.

“What security risks? Why do so many other countries, including the U.S., use BlackBerry? Aren’t they worried about their security?” he said. “This is a sign we’re heading toward a stricter and more conservative regime, whereas the rest of the world is opening up, especially in the information technology field.”