Saudi watchdog extends BlackBerry ban reprieve

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The Independent Tech

Saudi Arabia on Tuesday extended indefinitely a reprieve on a BlackBerry messenger ban after a deadline passed for finding a solution allowing authorities to monitor the service on the popular smartphone.

The telecoms watchdog in the ultra-conservative Muslim country announced that the BlackBerry service would remain online as efforts to find a solution continue, in a statement carried by the state news agency SPA.

The Communications and Information Technology Commission last week ordered Saudi mobile operators to block key BlackBerry services from August 6 or face a 1.3-million-dollar fine, after similar moves by other Arab nations.

After days of talks and testing possible solutions by the operators, CITC said on Tuesday that it "decided to allow the continuation of BlackBerry messenger service."

The Saudi regulator said it was continuing "to work with service providers to complete the remainder of the regulatory requirements" for BlackBerrys, which are made by Canadian company Research in Motion.

The ban reprieve, it added, was due to "positive developments in the completion of part of the regulatory requirements on the part of service providers," according to the statement carried by SPA.

CITC said last week its decision to suspend the services had been due to the fact that "the way BlackBerry services are provided currently does not meet the regulatory criteria of the commission and the licensing conditions."

Services were halted on Friday, but returned after a few hours before the suspension was then postponed until Monday evening to allow time to test suggested technical solutions giving authorities access to BlackBerry's encrypted data.

Among the reported solutions is the installation of a local server accessible to Saudi authorities, instead of the data going directly to the smartphone maker's Canadian servers.

More than 700,000 people subscribe to BlackBerry in Saudi Arabia, with most reportedly purchasing the handheld device for personal use.

BlackBerrys are a popular means of communication between men and women in the Muslim kingdom, where sexes are strictly segregated.

Many men post their pin numbers for the smartphones on car trunks or on social networking websites like Facebook as a way to introduce themselves to women.

But Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, has expressed fears the popular smartphone could jeopardise its security.

The threat of a Saudi ban came hot on the heels of an announcement by the telecoms authority in the United Arab Emirates that it would ban BlackBerry messenger, email and web browsing from October 11, for similar reasons.

Neighbouring Kuwait declared on Sunday it had no plans to follow the example of Saudi Arabia or the UAE, but said it was waiting to see the outcome of the tested exits.

Bahrain and Oman have said they oppose a ban on BlackBerry, a favourite tool of business travellers, while Lebanon, a frontline state with Israel, has yet to reach a decision despite its security concerns.

Outside the Arab world, India is mulling a ban and Indonesia is not ruling out the option, although on Thursday it denied the world's largest Muslim nation was considering a suspension of BlackBerry services.

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