Saudi Arabia postpones BlackBerry ban

Saudi Arabia  on Tuesday postponed indefinitely a BlackBerry ban after a deadline passed for finding a solution allowing authorities to monitor encrypted messages on the popular smartphone.

The telecoms watchdog in the ultra-conservative Muslim country announced BlackBerry messenger services would remain online, as it reported progress in efforts to find a solution, in a statement on state news agency SPA.

The Communications and Information Technology Commission had ordered mobile operators to block the BlackBerry feature from last Friday or face a 1.3-million-dollar (985,000 euro) fine, after similar moves by other Arab states.

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

It 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 (RIM).

The reprieve, it added, was due to “positive developments in the completion of part of the regulatory requirements on the part of service providers.”

Asked whether an agreement had been reached that allows CITC to monitor messages, Sultan al-Malik, a spokesman for the watchdog, told AFP he could not discuss “technical details” related to the issue.

The kingdom’s BlackBerry users welcomed the move, saying the regulator had made the right call.

CITC “has taken the right decision,” said 19-year-old university student Sahar Mohammed.

“I don’t know why they’ve made such a big deal out of this,” she said, adding that “they should have reached an agreement without making us go through all that discomfort last week.”

The phones are a popular means of communication between men and women in Saudi Arabia, where sexes are strictly segregated.

“I would have died… if the service was stopped even for three days,” Alonood Oseilan wrote on the wall of a Facebook group set up by a number of Saudi youths to protest the announced service ban.

Khaled al-Harthi, a 21-year-old university student, said he rushed off to buy a new BlackBerry to celebrate the occasion.

“I already have a BlackBerry but as I’m happy the service will continue, I decided to buy another one,” he said.

Last week, CITC said 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.”

Among the reported possible solutions is the installation of a local server accessible to Saudi authorities, instead of the data going directly to RIM’s Canadian servers.

On Monday, local daily Okaz quoted a source at one of the monarchy’s three mobile phone companies as saying the “tests on the server and requested programmes… have been successful.”

Another telecoms official also said talks between CITC and RIM have ended in “reaching a solution accepted by all parties,” according to Al-Shams daily.

More than 700,000 Saudis subscribe to BlackBerry, with most reportedly purchasing the smartphone for personal use.

But Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, has expressed fears the hand-held device 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.

The UAE telecoms regulator said last week that its decision to suspend the services was “final,” but that it remained open to discussions to find a “regulatory-compliant solution,” meaning a resolution that would allow monitoring could still be possible.

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.

India plans to set a deadline later this week for operators to allow security agencies access to encrypted BlackBerry messages or else face disconnection, the Hindustan Times quoted a home ministry official as saying.

Later, an official said the home ministry plans to meet mobile operators on Thursday to discuss allowing security agencies access to encrypted BlackBerry messages.

Indian law stipulates phone companies have the responsibility to ensure that intelligence agencies can lawfully monitor data handled by them.

Source: AFP

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