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BlackBerry will block porn, let UAE monitor e-mail

BlackBerry maker Research In Motion is willing to block porn sites and let government spies snoop on users, newspapers reported on Tuesday, following a shock ban on its key services in the Gulf.
A woman uses her Blackberry mobile device at a shopping mall in Dubai
A woman uses her BlackBerry at a shopping mall in Dubai, Aug. 2, 2010. Str / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

BlackBerry maker Research In Motion is willing to block porn sites and let government spies snoop on users, newspapers reported on Tuesday, following a shock ban on its key services in the Gulf.

The BlackBerry's coveted secrecy has come under scrutiny since Sunday, when the United Arab Emirates announced plans to ban BlackBerry Messenger, e-mail and Web browser services from October 11.

Like the UAE, India's government has applied pressure on national security grounds. The Associated Press reported RIM says it has not agreed to heightened surveillance by the Indian government.Talks are continuing over access to e-mails and other data sent from the smart phones.

RIM has given "initial approval" to block 3,000 porn sites at the request of Kuwait's communications ministry, Kuwaiti daily al-Jarida said.

Kuwait also has security concerns, it said, noting the government was working with RIM and telecom companies on "legal controls that would guarantee national security on the one hand, and the rights of citizens ... to use the device's services on the other."

Saudi Arabia has also asked service providers to cut off Messenger, industry sources told Reuters.

Unlike rivals Nokia and iPhone maker Apple, RIM controls its own networks which handle encrypted messages through centers in Canada and the UK.

That has made the BlackBerry popular as a secure way to communicate, but has worried intelligence agencies who fear the system could be used by militants.

The UAE has increased its security efforts since it arrested two men in 2009 for plotting to plant a bomb near a massive shopping center with nearly 4,000 shops in Dubai, the Middle East's trade and business hub. In January, Dubai was rocked by the assassination of a Palestinian Hamas commander in a luxury hotel which police said was the work of Israeli agents.

Government links
The Canadian firm, keen to clear the air after the UAE's threatened ban and before Tuesday's expected launch of a new BlackBerry dubbed its "iPhone killer," said on Monday it would respect both customers and governments.

"RIM does not disclose confidential regulatory discussions that take place with any government," it said, without elaborating.

The United States on Monday said it was disappointed that the UAE planned to cut off BlackBerry services, noting that the Gulf nation was setting a dangerous precedent in limiting freedom of information.

Yet in the UAE, regulators insist they want nothing more than what other nations have negotiated with the company and note they only announced plans for a ban after three years of failed negotiations to work out a compromise.

"It is troublesome to think that RIM is already complying with US and UK regulatory requirements which are virtually the same as those in the UAE," said a UAE source familiar with the matter.

"So it begs the question why treat the UAE differently?"

Theodore Karasik, a security analyst at Dubai-based firm INEGMA, said viewing the spat as simply a censorship issue is a mistake.

"Some in the Dubai/UAE bashing crowd will say this is a freedom of speech issue ... but some would say the UAE brought this up at the height of threat awareness here. There are several security issues here, Iran, Yemen, al Qaeda, that they could be worried about" he said.

"The UAE's actions have started a domino effect and that's part of the beauty of this: Everyone wants to get their security access. The UAE is acting as a bellwether for other countries on this," Karasik added.

In addition to bomb threats and January's assassination, the UAE has tracked several money laundering incidents, including a plot to defraud the central bank of 7.2 billion euros ($10.17 billion).

In India, RIM has offered to share with Indian security agencies its technical codes for corporate e-mail services, open up access to all consumer e-mails within 15 days and also develop tools in six to eight months to allow monitoring of chats, the Economic Times reported, citing internal government documents.

RIM will provide details on its proposals to the Indian telecoms ministry on Tuesday, the newspaper said. A RIM India spokesman had no comment. A ministry spokesman could not reached for immediate comment.

The Kuwait newspaper report said that RIM asked the government to give it until the end of the year to implement a block on pornographic websites.

BlackBerry users in the UAE on Tuesday were offered iPhones and other handsets by service providers keen to hold on to some 500,000 customers in the Gulf Arab nation. Top provider Emirates Telecommunications Corp (Etisalat) offered free devices to customers affected by the ban.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia and India represent more than 2 million BlackBerry users, or about 5 percent of the 41 million devices in service worldwide.

RIM's Nasdaq-listed shares fell as much as 2.7 percent before closing down 0.96 percent at $56.98 on Monday. Its Toronto-listed shares resume trading on Tuesday following a public holiday.