Saudi company says told to ban key BlackBerry services

A Saudi telecoms company said on Monday that the kingdom's regulatory authority ordered it to suspend key BlackBerry services, after a similar move in the United Arab Emirates.

"We have received a memorandum from the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) to suspend some BlackBerry services in August," an official at one of the three Saudi telecoms companies told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity and asking that his company not be identified.

CITC "has ordered local operators to freeze the messenger function for BlackBerry users this month," the Saudi Gazette said.

Local service providers have known for five months that the messaging service would be banned, the daily added, citing officials.

The three providers - Saudi Telecom Company (STC), Mobily and Zain - made it clear that the ban does not apply to e-mail service, the daily said.

On Sunday, one company executive had told AFP an order was "expected" from CITC to suspend BlackBerry's popular messenger service in Saudi Arabia.

However, the services of BlackBerry in the ultra-conservative monarchy were still functioning normally on Monday, several users told AFP.

Companies have asked BlackBerry's makers - Research in Motion Ltd (RIM) - to modify the messaging service to meet "official, private, social and educational requirements," the daily said.

"RIM has informed the Saudi companies that it is modifying the service to meet requests made by officials in countries including the (Saudi) kingdom and France," it added.

CITC officials were not immediately available on Monday for comment.

In March, the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan said authorities in the kingdom want to control BlackBerry's messenger service and that the government could even shut it down. The report was never confirmed.

At the time RIM said it was investigating the case.

The neighbouring United Arab Emirates said on Sunday it will suspend key BlackBerry services from October 11 as they breach laws and raise security concerns in the Gulf business hub.

The UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said the decision was taken "after failing to make progress in repeated attempts to make BlackBerry services compatible" with the Gulf state's legislation.

These services could "allow individuals to commit violations without being subject to legal accountability, which would lead to dangerous implications on the social, judicial and national security."

Paris-based media watchdog Reporters without Borders accused the UAE on Thursday of "harassing and arresting users of BlackBerry Messenger who allegedly tried to organise a protest" against an increase in petrol prices.

In July last year, RIM charged that an update issued by UAE's largest telecoms provider, Etisalat, was actually spyware, and that it enabled unauthorised access to information stored on the user's smartphone.

In India, the handset sparked a similar controversy after the Indian government warned it would close down RIM's operations in the world's fastest growing mobile market after China if it could not monitor emails and text messages because of security concerns.

RIM gave an assurance that it would soon address concerns on the "issue of monitoring the BlackBerry," an Indian official said last week.

Utthan Kumar Bansal, a senior home ministry official, said he was "sure we will soon be on the same page and our concerns will be addressed."

"BlackBerry has assured the ministry of home affairs that the issue of monitoring of the BlackBerry will be sorted out soon," he said.

RIM and the Indian government were embroiled in a similar security row in 2008 and held talks about New Delhi's security concerns.

India, which faces a strengthening home-grown Maoist insurgency and constant threats from Islamist groups, has become increasingly sensitive about the potential risks of new technology.

It unveiled tough new telecommunications rules last week for operators and retailers to tackle security issues.

The BlackBerry handset, which uses sophisticated encryption technology that authorities are unable to intercept and decipher, has more than 700,000 subscribers in Saudi Arabia, 500,000 in the UAE and about one million in India.

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