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In criticizing UAE's plans to block BlackBerry service, U.S. government is walking a fine line

With the State Department’s criticism of the United Arab Emirates for blocking BlackBerry services, the U.S. government is left walking a fine line -– preaching for global Internet freedom at the same time that federal authorities are seeking greater powers to monitor Web users, privacy advocates say.

In a media briefing Monday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the UAE’s move to block instant messaging, e-mail and Web browsing on BlackBerry devices starting Oct. 11 would set a “dangerous precedent” for other nations to also block the flow of information to their citizens.

The UAE responded by defending its actions and pointing to similar actions by the United States and Britain to suspend certain communications services for national security purposes.

“In fact, the UAE is asking for exactly the same regulatory compliance -- and with the same principles of judicial and regulatory oversight -- that BlackBerry grants the U.S. and other governments and nothing more,” Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba said in a statement. “Importantly, the UAE requires the same compliance as the U.S. for the very same reasons: to protect national security and to assist in law enforcement.”

U.S. authorities have increasingly sought greater ability to wiretap and access e-mail and possibly browser history of users on the grounds of law enforcement and national security concerns, privacy advocates say.

Last week, my colleague Ellen Nakashima reported that the Obama administration is seeking to make it easier for the FBI to compel companies to turn over records of an individual's Internet activity without a court order if agents deem the information relevant to a terrorism or intelligence investigation.

"The UAE is saying, 'How dare you say we are an outlier country,' and that they are no different than Western countries where people are denouncing them for this action," said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "The changes since 9/11 in U.S. and E.U. data retention mandates have no doubt provided an excuse and opportunity."

As reported earlier, the UAE said starting Oct. 11 that it would suspend BlackBerry services to the nation's 500,000 subscribers because the device does not comply with the country’s regulations. Through its state news service, the UAE government expressed concern that certain technologies that protect user information could hinder their national security efforts.

“We’re disappointed at the announcement,” Crowley said. “We are committed to promoting the free flow of information. We think it’s innovative. It’s integral to an innovative economy, and we will be clarifying with the UAE their reasons for making this announcement.”

Last January, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a speech condemning nations that censor the Internet. She also criticized China for forcing U.S. companies to censor Web content, a practice Google denounced. Google still operates in China, and though it does not censor information, the government recently renewed its license to operate certain Web sites.

By Cecilia Kang  |  August 3, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
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A big security hole for sure. Pair this with a huge potential for breach through younger workers' use of social networking sites, and their casual attitude regarding data, asset, and enterprise security, and there’s a real recipe for disaster. Google to a free blog, "The Business-Technology Weave" - it has some great info on security, culture, etc. That author also has a great book, "I.T. WARS." Security should be kept front and center. We assign parts of that book for new employee orientation where I work. Please keep security front and center.

Posted by: janice33rpm | August 3, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Give me a break. The Obama administration is "seeking" to give the FBI easier access to internet records. And there's a large part of the U.S. electorate working to deny him his goal. The UAE is BANNING Blackberry use. Neither the U.S. nor Britain bans Blackberry's or browsing. If we fail to see the difference, or concede to these demands, we willingly make ourselves slaves to the lowest common denominator of rights-violating, women-hating dictatorships. Who have a lot of oil.

Posted by: LynnBecker | August 3, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

it is thier internal law please don't interfere

Posted by: fariborzzak | August 3, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Leave it to the sociopath in the White House to spout something like this. In the mean time he's seeking to give the FBI more powers, power to access your internet usage. Talk about a two bit hack. It the infamous words of Obama. The White House acted stup1dly……... IMPEACH OBAMA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: askgees | August 3, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Certainly it's their internal law. Just don't expect global businesses to help fill up all those new empty skyscrapers when you prohibit them from using the devices they're all dependent on.

Posted by: LynnBecker | August 3, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Someone has to set the tyrants straight.

Posted by: KraftPaper | August 3, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

State better be worried - half their staff at the Embassy in the UAE uses blackberries...

Posted by: silencedogoodreturns | August 3, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

The Arabs have a point: In a slightly hazier kind of way, we're doing the exact same thing. Of course, the Gulf folks are a little more primitive politically and socially, but the principle applies.

Posted by: CopyKinetics | August 3, 2010 11:47 PM | Report abuse

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