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Saudi Officials Postpone BlackBerry Ban

August 10, 2010

The Communications and Information Technology Commission of Saudi Arabia has indefinitely postponed a ban on certain BlackBerry functions, according to various media reports.

Due to their inability to monitor communications sent through the Research In Motion (RIM) designed handsets, the Saudi telecommunication watchdog group had initially planned to place a ban on BlackBerry’s instant messaging service Friday. Following a series of negotiations with RIM, however, CITC announced Tuesday that they would allow the service to continue.

“In light of the positive developments in completing part of the regulatory requirements from the service providers, the regulatory authority has decided to allow the continuation of the BlackBerry Messenger services,” CITC said in a statement initially published via the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) and reprinted by Reuters. They added that they would “continue working with the service providers to complete the rest of the regulatory requirements.”

BlackBerry users in the Middle Eastern nation applauded the ruling.

CITC made “the right decision,” Sahar Mohammed, a 19-year-old university student Sahar Mohammed, told AFP reporters on Tuesday. “I don’t know why they’ve made such a big deal out of this”¦ they should have reached an agreement without making us go through all that discomfort last week.”

RIM, the Canadian-based manufacturer of the popular smartphones, still faces investigations and possible bans in several other countries, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), India, and Lebanon. At the heart of the debate is the fact that BlackBerry devices automatically encrypt data and send it to computer servers located outside of the countries, which makes it impossible for government officials to monitor and could be construed as a threat to national security.

Last Thursday, officials from the Indian government told the BBC that they were meeting with RIM officials regarding the issue. A report from the Times of India that same day quoted an unnamed source as stating that the government may opt to block the handset’s instant messaging feature, but not email or voicemail functions.

Furthermore, “Lebanon raised concerns over the smartphone on Thursday, saying it was studying security concerns related to the BlackBerry and would begin talks with RIM,” according to Reuters reporter Yara Bayoumy, and Indonesia was also seeking increased monitoring of BlackBerry data.

Michael Lazaridis, co-CEO of Research In Motion, discussed the controversy during an interview with the Wall Street Journal last Wednesday. Lazaridis told WSJ writers Spencer E. Ante and Phred Dvorak that the issue wasn’t just about the BlackBerry, but about the Internet as a whole.

“Everything on the Internet is encrypted. This is not a BlackBerry-only issue. If they can’t deal with the Internet, they should shut it off,” he told the WSJ reporters, adding that he felt his company’s devices were being unfairly singled out by international governments and that he was confident that he would be able to keep the device from getting banned internationally.

While the details of the deal between RIM and the CITC have not been released, experts believe that the compromise could have a long-lasting and widespread impact if the BlackBerry manufacturers agreed to turn over user data to officials from the Saudi government.

“If RIM is required to give wholesale access to one government, they’re going to give access to other countries. That’s just the way it happens,” Cindy Cohn, legal director and general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told Abdullah Al-Shihri of the Associated Press Tuesday.

According to what London-based analyst Nick Jones told the New York Times, RIM most likely provided the CITC with legal intercepts of data, but did not decrypt them.

“Most governments reserve the right to access communications,” he told reporter Kevin J. O’Brien on Tuesday. “But it would be difficult for R.I.M. to decrypt and disclose private communications and then lie about it, because security is everything to R.I.M.”

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