Sunday, 1 August 2010

BlackBerry Blues Hits the Gulf

Dear Valued Customer, 
The UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority has decided to suspend BlackBerry services from Oct 11, 2010. In accordance with this decision will soon announce alternative mobility products and services. Please visit www.etisalat.ae/blackberry for further information and updates.
This was the message that arrived on my phone at 11:28am this morning, here in Dubai, the second city of the United Arab Emirates. This decision had been forewarned just several days earlier in news reports. The Regulatory Authority issued a statement criticizing the BlackBerry for undermining the country's security. "BlackBerry operates beyond the jurisdiction of national legislation." It can lead to "serious social, judicial, and national security repercussions." It was not the first 'controversy' of note between the Blackberry and the UAE. Almost exactly one year earlier, the nation's premier carrier, Etisalat tried to push a security update on users, which drew considerable suspicion. Unbeknownst to consumers, this update was actually shown to be a form of spyware to track and monitor messages and phone activity.  Moreover, it was Research-in-Motion (RIM), the maker of BlackBerry, that uncovered the spyware, and offered to remedy the situation for people in the UAE.

The situation overall was embarrassing for the country and provoked a mini-backlash across the Emirates. Since then, there had been very little public noise about BlackBerry. However, in the past few weeks, conversations had been intensifying between RIM and the government in the UAE, and with governments in the wider region. Reporters without Borders questioned the official line, stating that the real purpose of the UAE is as follows:
The government regards the services offered by BlackBerry, especially its instant messaging, as an obstacle to its goal of reinforcing censorship, filtering and surveillance. We fear that this statement is designed to prepare the public for a total ban or block on BlackBerry.
In particular, BlackBerry Messenger (or BBM as its popularly known) has come under heavy scrutiny. Within the region, BBM is seen as a sort of 'twitter-lite' that can lead quickly to social unrest. In the UAE, when gas prices were recently raised by around 10%, some residents mobilized over BBM to organize a protest. However, these users were actually tracked by authorities and arrested. For the government there is a logic in trying to preserve stability in an increasingly unstable and volatile region. Of course, for the millions of residents using BlackBerry in the countries of the Gulf, there has been shock and dismay in response to the draconian action to prospectively ban the BlackBerry and/or track all messages sent via the device. While certain websites in the UAE are blocked already, Twitter and Facebook are not, and they have been abuzz with messages on the announcement.

The wider concern is that this action was not taken in isolation. In fact, shortly after the UAE's announcement, it was revealed that Saudi telecommunications operators have been ordered to 'shut-down' BBM for this month. The world's largest 'democracy' India has in fact given RIM a deadline to provide access to its citizens BBM traffic.  Other countries such as Kuwait and Bahrain are thought to be mulling options along the lines of the UAE. This is not even to mention the fact that the Washington Post's Top Secret America, may already have access to all BlackBerry messages and emails.

At least today, BlackBerry is still functional here in Dubai and the messages are flowing with increasing fervor. Hopefully, this will not change in the near or long-term; although there may be one or two extra recipients per message.

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