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Mobile technology: India and BlackBerry standoff could lead to ban

India says it wants to keep mobile technology and Internet markets safe from militants. BlackBerry says it won't give India special treatment.

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A customer holds a BlackBerry handset inside a mobile selling shop in Kolkata, Thursday, August 12. Thursday, India’s home ministry warned that it would cut BlackBerry business e-mail and messaging services if its manufacturer, Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM), did not make them accessible to security agencies by Aug. 31.

Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

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India’s threat to block BlackBerry e-mail and messaging services could widen to affect other telecom and Internet providers including Google, according to reports Friday.

Thursday, India’s home ministry warned that it would cut BlackBerry business e-mail and messaging services if its manufacturer, Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM), did not make them accessible to security agencies by Aug. 31. The government fears that the BlackBerry encryption could provide cover for terrorist activity.

A government source said India would pursue any other companies, including Google, to keep mobile and Internet markets safe from militants, Reuters reported on Friday. The 10 armed gunmen who attacked Mumbai in November 2008, killing 166 people, used cell and satellite phones to communicate with their handlers. India is also battling insurgencies in Kashmir, the northeast, and a Maoist rebellion in many others parts of the country.

It is not yet clear whether the home ministry’s threat will lead to a BlackBerry ban in India. For the time being, India and RIM are locked in a standoff.

The company has responded to the government’s request with a decisive “no.” It would not, it said in a statement published Thursday, compromise the security of its service; nor would it give any countries special treatment.

But the threat presents a dilemma to RIM. India has the fastest growing telecoms market in the world, and it has become an increasingly important market to the Canadian company as it has lost market share in the United States to rival Google Inc.'s Android and Apple Inc.'s iPhone.

Indeed, some 1 million of BlackBerry’s 41 million total customers live in India, with more buying into the technology every day.

“This is a government-mandated death threat,” the Hindustan Times newspaper wrote in an editorial Friday. “It's somewhere between very difficult and impossible for RIM to comply.”

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The government’s threat applies to a system used by corporate BlackBerry users, which requires special software to connect to the company’s e-mail system. The vast majority of BlackBerry users in India are on this system.

India, for its part, does not want to dampen its appeal as a destination for high-tech companies or business people for whom secure communications is essential. So far, no country that has threatened to cut BlackBerry services has done so. On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia and RIM reached a last-minute agreement that allowed BlackBerry to continue operations.

The United Arab Emirates last week called for a ban on BlackBerry e-mail, messaging, and Internet services, saying the devices "allow users to act without any legal accountability, causing judicial, social and national security concerns." It has threatened to shut off the services in October unless it works out a compromise with RIM.

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