BlackBerry: not just a headache for the UAE

The BlackBerry has long been a bone of contention with Gulf telecoms regulators.

Sunday’s sudden announcement from the UAE’s TRA is not the first occasion that Research in Motion (RIM)’s BlackBerry has provoked furrowed brows in the boardrooms of the region’s national telecoms regulators.

While there has long been a trend in the Middle East, and especially the Gulf, of watchdogs threatening to take action against RIM, the UAE has been the first to explicitly announce an outright ban on BlackBerry’s key services.

In June 2009, Etisalat found itself the target of anger after it was accused of infecting BlackBerry handsets with spyware. At the time, RIM told its customers said that Etisalat’s performance enhancing patch “is not designed to improve performance of your BlackBerry, but rather to send received messages back to a central server.”

In April this year, Bahrain became the first country in the world to take legal action against users of BlackBerry’s chat service. The Bahrain News Agency said that local consumers had been using the service to post news, despite not being licensed to do so by the local government. As a result, a Bahraini service entitled ‘Breaking News’ – which had more than 12,000 subscribers – was suspended despite the fact that most of the reports were reposted from official news postings.

In Saudi Arabia, the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) did say that it would take action against RIM if it did not locate its servers in the country. However, RIM refused, and the issue seems to have petered out due to no further response from the regulator.

The BlackBerry is also a hot topic of debate in Kuwait, where officials have expressed particular concern over the BlackBerry Mobile service.

But it’s perhaps in India where RIM’s most successful product has been the subject of the closest attention. There has been evidence to suggest that BlackBerry devices were used by the coordinators of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008. While there has been speculation that the Canadian manufacturer has offered to base its servers in the country, there has as yet been no confirmation. As a result, the company is also facing a ban on the subcontinent.

RIM also faced obstacles recently in Pakistan, where the national telecommunications regulator said it blocked Internet browsers on BlackBerry handsets, citing concerns over blasphemy.

Communications are subject to monitoring in countries like the US, where the Patriot Act, passed in 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks, permits intercepting wire, oral and electronic communications when terrorism is suspected.

Technology companies have faced other challenges over access to information. Google Inc. conflicted with China in January after the company said it would no longer self-censor search results in the world’s largest Internet market. Google had its Internet licence renewed earlier this month after it stopped automatically redirecting Chinese users to its separate Hong Kong site.

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