Thursday, August 05, 2010

Mobile email and its discontents

By Peter Henne

I had half-expected the UAE and Saudi ban on some BlackBerry services to be an esoteric topic; the details of telecommunications policy in Gulf states is hardly a regular conversation point. As a DC resident, however, I daily wade through seas of people made oblivious to the world around them by these devices. For better or worse, mobile access to the internet and email is the lifeblood of many, so this story is of concern to both the business and human rights communities.

Two aspects of the story stand out. The first is the rather technical justification put forward by Saudi and UAE authorities. The UAE has claimed they want only the "same regulatory compliance" that other states demand from telecommunications companies, while the Saudis talk of "regulatory requirements." Most agree this is blatant censorship, but it is useful to compare it to Pakistan's blasphemy-based justifications for recent limitations on internet access. This hardly endeared the Pakistani government to international opinion, but it did generate support among some religious conservatives. That the Gulf states--especially Saudi Arabia--seem to be avoiding religious appeals demonstrates the balancing act involved in their attempt to be an integral part of the global economy.

The second interesting element is how widespread moves to censor BlackBerry seem to be. Both India and Lebanon have been moving towards similar controls. And Indonesia apparently considered limitations on email access, but recently claimed there would be no ban on the services. That relatively open countries like India and Indonesia are concerned about BlackBerry access shows these policies are not tied to the peculiarities of the Gulf states.

The efforts to limit BlackBerry access are part of the tension between states benefiting from the free flow and ideas and resources in the modern international system, and their desire to limit their vulnerability from these flows. The problem is not that these states have a limited understanding of the Internet--as some have argued--but that they understand it all too well.

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