Saudi official says agreement with BlackBerry on services imminent

By Abdullah Al-shihri, AP
Saturday, August 7, 2010

Saudi says agreement close on BlackBerry services

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the Canadian maker of BlackBerry telephones are going well and an agreement is imminent, said a Saudi regulatory official Saturday.

The Saudi telecommunications regulatory agency announced earlier this week that BlackBerry’s messenger service would be halted on Friday over concerns that its data could not be monitored. Last minute talks, however, staved off the ban.

If an agreement is reached it could have wide-ranging implications for several other countries, including India and the United Arab Emirates, that have issues with the company over how it stores its data.

“Negotiations are ongoing. We agreed to continue the service,” said Ahmed Ali, a director with the Saudi telecoms regulatory authority. “The Canadian firm is on its way to agreeing to Saudi requests.”

The Saudi-owned, Dubai-based news channel Al-Arabiya also reported Saturday that the crisis had been averted and a deal had been reached to give authorities access to BlackBerry data.

The report said the agreement involved installing servers inside the country that could be monitored and tests were under way. The information could not be independently verified.

The kingdom is one of a number of countries expressing concern that the device is a security threat because encrypted information sent on the phones is routed through overseas computers — making it impossible for local governments to monitor.

The United Arab Emirates has announced it will ban BlackBerry e-mail, messaging and Web browsing starting in October, and Indonesia and India are also demanding greater control over the data.

Analysts say RIM’s expansion into fast-growing emerging markets is threatening to set off a wave of regulatory challenges, as its commitment to keep corporate e-mails secure rubs up against the desires of local law enforcement.

RIM says it does offer help to governments, but says its technology does not allow it, or any third party, to read encrypted e-mails sent by corporate BlackBerry users. The consumer version has a lower level of security.

In Saudi Arabia — which local media say has some 750,000 BlackBerry users — the ban has raised accusations the government is trying to further curb freedom of expression.

Saudi Arabia’s telecommunications regulator, known as the Communications and Information Technology Commission, announced the imminent ban on Tuesday, saying the BlackBerry service “in its present state does not meet regulatory requirements,” according to the state news agency SPA.

Saudi security officials fear the service could be used by militant groups. The kingdom has been waging a crackdown for years against al-Qaida-linked extremists.

Saudi Arabia also enforces heavy policing of the Internet, blocking sites both for political content and for obscenities.

Expectations of the ban have pushed some to sell their devices. At Riyadh’s main mobile phone market, dozens of young men on the street were trying to sell the devices, some in their original packaging, and some running at more than half the normal price.

BlackBerry phones are known to be popular both among businesspeople and youth in the kingdom who see the phones’ relatively secure communication features as a way to avoid attention from the authorities.

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