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.
August 3, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
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