The news Saturday that after years of failed negotiations the United Arab Emirates will ban the data and email service on Blackberry phones after October 11 without an agreement allowing the Emirates to monitor the currently encrypted data raises fascinating questions about how authoritarian governments cope with emerging technologies.
While the UAE government has argued that security concerns and national sovereignty allow it to set rules regulating commerce, American officials and NGO’s alike have cried foul over the human rights implications of the forthcoming ban. From an Al Jazeera article on the subject:
As they stand, BlackBerry services allow users to “commit violations without being subject to legal accountability,” the UAE Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) said in a statement on Sunday.
Some have accused the UAE of trying to censor BlackBerry phones because the government cannot easily monitor them…
…After the TRA warned in July that BlackBerry phones posed a threat to national security, Reporters Without Borders accused the UAEof viewing BlackBerry services “as an obstacle to its goal of reinforcing censorship, filtering and surveillance”.
The group said that a ban or block on the BlackBerry would be “a serious mistake and utterly inconsistent on the part of a country that aspires to be a technological leader in the Arab world”.
But the problem is not just one of freedom, though that is a serious issue; it is also about the Emirates’ economic viability. While it seems that the estimated 500,000 Emirati Blackberry users may learn, with a sigh of regret, to deal with the ban, it is less clear how the nearly 100,000 visitors who pass through or stop in the Emirates daily will deal with a sudden gap in their email and a slow-down to their ability to do business.
While people often talk about bans of YouTube and Facebook, the Blackberry ban could put a real dent in the Emirates’ competitiveness globally. And while I doubt this move will kill the Emirates’ role as a commercial and travel hub, it could cause some people to take their travel and operations elsewhere. Coming on the tails of Dubai’s real estate crash, any reduction in the flow of travelers and others could be enough to cause damage, to not only the Emirates’ money flow but also to their image. As Jonathan Shainin, a former editor of the UAE’s The National newspaper noted on twitter, “All I need to know about the proposed BlackBerry ban is that it makes the UAE look foolish.”
It will be interesting in the coming months to see who blinks first, and whether or not the power of mass communications are enough to sway governments trying to balance a globalized existence with closed government.
— Andrew Lebovich