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BlackBerry Maker Resists Governments’ Pressure

A top executive of Research In Motion, the Canadian company that makes BlackBerry smartphones, said on Tuesday that his company would not give in to pressure from foreign governments to provide access to its customers’ messages.

That pressure increased on Tuesday as Saudi Arabia ordered local cellphone providers to halt BlackBerry service, saying it failed to meet the country’s regulatory requirements.

Blackberry Torch 9800
Source: blackberry.com
Blackberry Torch 9800

Mike Lazaridis, founder and co-chief executive of R.I.M, said in an interview that allowing governments to monitor messages shuttling across the BlackBerry network could endanger the company’s relationships with its customers, which include major companies and law enforcement agencies.

“We’re not going to compromise that,” Mr. Lazaridis said. “That’s what’s made BlackBerry the No. 1 solution worldwide.”

Similarly, the United Arab Emirates announced on Sunday that it would block BlackBerry e-mail and text-messaging servicesbeginning in October.

Several governments have cited national security concerns in demanding that R.I.M. open up its system. Like the Emirates, Saudi Arabia has expressed concern about BlackBerry’s highly encrypted data service, which makes it difficult to monitor communications.

The suspension in Saudi Arabia is to take effect this month, according to the state-owned Saudi Press Agency.

Mr. Lazaridis denied reports that the company had already granted special concessions to the governments of countries like India and China, which have large numbers of BlackBerry owners.

“That’s absolutely ridiculous and patently false,” he said.

Mr. Lazaridis said the encryption that was causing alarm among foreign governments was used for many other purposes, including e-commerce transactions, teleconferencing and electronic money transfers.

“If you were to ban strong encryption, you would shut down corporations, business, commerce, banking and the Internet,” he said. “Effectively, you’d shut it all down. That’s not likely going to happen.”

Mr. Lazaridis expressed sympathy for the concerns of the Persian Gulf nations. “I am very empathetic to their concerns and what they go through,” Mr. Lazaridis said. “But every country goes through these things. We have to be prepared for the ramifications of the decisions we make.”

R.I.M. issued a statement Tuesday that was intended to reassure customers, saying that “customers of the BlackBerry enterprise solution can maintain confidence in the integrity of the security architecture without fear of compromise.”

Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and computer science at Harvard and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said the statement appeared to address only the products that the company sold to corporate customers, not those it sells directly to consumers.

Corporate customers tend to be of less concern to governments, he said, because criminals or terrorists are less likely to engage in illegal activities from corporate e-mail systems, and because governments can go directly to those corporations to obtain employees’ information.

“This doesn’t put the main question to rest,” Professor Zittrain said. “It doesn’t explain under what circumstances would the average BlackBerry user have his communications exposed.”

A spokeswoman for R.I.M. said the company would not elaborate on its statement.

Mr. Lazaridis spoke after a press conference in Manhattan at which executives from AT&T and R.I.M. introduced the BlackBerry Torch 9800, the company’s first phone with both a touch screen and a slide-out keyboard.

The Torch, which costs $199 with a two-year data plan, will be sold exclusively for AT&T’s network beginning Aug. 12. It has a 5-megapixel camera with a flash and runs a new version of R.I.M.’s mobile operating system called BlackBerry 6.


Don Lindsay, vice president for user experience at R.I.M., pointed out the phone’s new software features, which include a redesigned home screen, improved support for multimedia and applications and a better Web browser.

“It’s not about bringing something new to BlackBerry but improving what we do best,” he said.

Research In Motion has a lot riding on the release of the Torch. The company has been losing market share and mindshare to Apple and Google as more users clamor for the iPhone and smartphones powered by Android, Google’s mobile operating system. For R.I.M., this competition has increased the importance of markets in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

A report released on Monday by Nielsen said sales of R.I.M. devices to new subscribers in the United States were slowing, and that 29 percent of BlackBerry users had considered switching to the iPhone.

Another report from the research firm Canalys said that in the second quarter, Android sales were up nearly 900 percent from a year ago, claiming 34 percent of the market in the United States. By comparison, Research In Motion had 32 percent, and Apple staked out 21.7 percent of the market. A year ago, R.I.M.’s share was 45 percent.