UAE to suspend key BlackBerry services

Gulf business hub the United Arab Emirates said Sunday it will halt key BlackBerry services that breach laws and raise security concerns, a move Saudi Arabia may follow according to unconfirmed reports.

The UAE suspension would kick in on October 11 and last until a legal solution was reached, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) said in a statement on its website.

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

"Due to its technical nature, some BlackBerry services, like the messenger, email, and web browsing, remain beyond the implementation of local laws," the TRA said.

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."

"In the public interest, we have today informed the providers of telecommunications services in the country of our decision to suspend the BlackBerry services of messenger, email and electronic browsing," TRA chief Mohammed al-Ghanem said in the statement.

Ghanem said the suspension would remain in force "until a solution compatible with the telecommunications laws in the country is reached."

Saudi Arabia was expected to block BlackBerry messaging, an official at a telecommunications company in the kingdom told AFP on Sunday, while another firm denied the claims.

"Orders are expected from the (telecommunications) regulator" to suspend BlackBerry's popular messenger service in the kingdom, one official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

But an official from another Saudi company dismissed the claim. "We continue to provide a full service," he said, declining to be named.

BlackBerry has more than 700,000 subscribers in Saudi Arabia and 500,000 in the UAE, a country that has established itself as a major business hub mainly in the bustling emirate of Dubai.

In anticipation of communication problems that would arise from cutting the service, Ghanem said providers Etisalat and Du have been told they should offer alternatives.

"Providing alternative offers that would guarantee the continuity of messenger, email and web browsing to personal and business clients is at the top of our priorities," he said.

The UAE's largest telecoms provider, Etisalat, acknowledged the decision and pledged to provide solutions for users.

"Etisalat's focus at the current time is to make sure its valued customers experience continuity of mobility services," the state-majority-owned operator said in a statement.

"In line with its commitment towards its customers, Etisalat will soon be announcing a range of alternative mobility products and services for its existing BlackBerry customers," it added.

Du also said it would respect the decision.

"As a communication provider in the country, we have to always operate within the regulations of TRA," it said in a statement carried by state news agency WAM.

The debate over control of BlackBerry services in the oil-rich UAE became heated last week amid complaints that data belonging to local users was stored abroad by the BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM).

The TRA said last week that the BlackBerry service could allow people to use some of its applications "inappropriately."

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

"We call for an end to this government witch-hunt against BlackBerry Messenger users who tried to get their fellow citizens to join them in a protest," it said on Thursday, claiming that one of the organisers, Badr Ali al-Dhohori, 18, has been in custody in Abu Dhabi since July 15.

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

The UAE telecommunications authorities control access to the Internet, filtering out material including nudity, pornography, and some political websites.

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