UAE to suspend BlackBerry functionality

New York, August 2, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the United Arab Emirates’ decision to suspend BlackBerry services for e-mail, instant messaging, and browsing the Web. The communications authority in the UAE announced on Sunday that it would suspend the data applications as of October 11. CPJ calls on the authorities to recall the ban, which is an attempt to control the flow of information and monitor communication in the country. 

The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), a government body that regulates the telecommunications and information technology industries in the UAE,  announced on Sunday that “certain BlackBerry services allow users to act without any legal accountability, causing judicial, social and national security concerns for the UAE.” The main problem, according to the regulator, is that “BlackBerry data is immediately exported off-shore, where it is managed by a foreign, commercial organization.” TRA also stated that the suspension is a result of the “failure of ongoing attempts to bring BlackBerry services in the UAE in line with UAE telecommunications regulations.”

The encryption technology used by BlackBerry devices makes it difficult for the government to monitor e-mails, and text messages sent from the device. The data is exported offshore through BlackBerry’s network, which bypasses the servers within the country. 

Handheld digital devices have become essential equipment for journalists, who rely on them to share information and do their reporting,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “The government’s plan to disable the devices will make the UAE a less hospitable place for the journalists and undermine efforts to make the kingdom a global media center.”

Dubai, for example, has constructed a state-of-the-art “Media City” and has succeeded in attracting media organizations from around the world.

“The insistence by UAE authorities that they have the right to monitor all electronic communication is liable to be deeply unsettling to journalists, who rely on confidential communication with their sources in order to do their job.” Simon added.

TRA Director General Mohamed al-Ghanim denied that the ban is an attempt to censor communications. “Censorship has got nothing to do with this,” he was quoted by the BBC as saying. “What we are talking about is suspension due to the lack of compliance with UAE telecommunications regulations.” He told Arabic-language daily Al-Emarat Al-Youm that the decision was final since the Canadian company Research in Motion, BlackBerry’s manufacturer, refused UAE demands to provide services from within the Emirates—a move that could allow for easy monitoring.

Al-Ghanim added, however, that “the negotiations are ongoing” between the UAE and Research in Motion. Ben Thompson, the BBC’s Middle East business reporter, said that many in the country see this ban “as little more than a power play from the UAE authorities,” an attempt to force the provider “to hand over the security codes or face losing a lucrative market.” With 500,000 BlackBerry customers in the country, it represents a small share of the device’s market worldwide.

The UAE is not the only country trying to disable some BlackBerry services. Saudi Arabia is planning to suspend BlackBerry’s instant messaging later this month, according to the BBC. Kuwaiti officials are calling for a closer examination of BlackBerry devices and the issuance of similar bans, if necessary, according to the London-based Elaph news website. In Bahrain, the Ministry of Information and Culture has banned news circulation via mobile devices, unless a license has been granted, according to Elaph