by Amar Toor*
Throughout his stellar 15-year career as arguably the greatest tennis player in history, Pete Sampras wielded the same, archaic Wilson Pro Staff 6.0 racquet, which he used to chip and charge his way into athletic immortality. Although the Pro Staff was the weapon of choice for a number of notable players—including Stefan Edberg, Steffi Graf and, in his early years, Roger Federer—no other legend was ever as synonymously associated with the stick than Sampras was.
In some sense, the BlackBerry smartphone is to the 21st century businessman what the Wilson Pro Staff once was to Pete Sampras. In the same way that Sampras used his graphite sword to pave his way to international supremacy, today’s businessmen and women rely upon the BlackBerry to execute deals and manage global logistics from within the palms of their hands. So integral is the BlackBerry to modern finance, in fact, that it’s now difficult to imagine an investment banker or fund manager without one constantly by her side.
Imagine the terror that must have coursed through Dubai’s corporate veins, then, when the United Arab Emirates announced a potentially crippling ban on BlackBerry service in August.
Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian company that manufactures BlackBerry phones, suddenly found itself under fire from Emirate leaders, who demanded that the company allow the government greater access to corporate data sent across its networks. The ability to monitor such data, officials argued, was critical to the country’s efforts to identify and defuse potential attacks.
The problem, however, was that all user data sent across RIM’s network were encrypted and securely stored in servers in Canada and the US—where the UAE, of course, would have no authority to access them. Because the data were hermetically locked, moreover, they were exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to access. Even the company’s engineers claimed they didn’t have the “key” to unlock the system.
In response, then, the UAE threatened to completely block all email, text message and internet BlackBerry services within the country by 11 October unless RIM complied with the country’s demands and opened up its database. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and India, meanwhile, soon fired similarly ominous warning shots.
Ultimately, the blackout never materialized. Just a few days before the looming 11 October deadline, the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority announced that the Canadian company’s infrastructure was now compatible with the country’s demands, and that BlackBerry users would enjoy uninterrupted service as a result. RIM avoided similar bans in India and Saudi Arabia, where the company reportedly appeased governmental demands by placing servers within the respective countries.
On the surface, at least, all appears to be hunky dory now between RIM and its Middle East markets. The Canadian company reportedly met its respective government mandates, and businessmen and foreign travelers can still use their BlackBerrys to surf the web from atop the Burj Al-Arab.
But the fact that a sizeable chunk of the Middle East came so close to a blanketed BlackBerry blackout should give cause for concern, on a number of levels. Thus far, most of the discussion surrounding the RIM-UAE standoff has centered on the exceedingly tenuous balance between national sovereignty and cross-border telecommunications.
The ethos of every major telecom or web-based company, after all, is one of globalism. Unlike other goods or service-based industries, the global telecom sector relies almost exclusively on one, critical commodity: the human audience.
Financially titanic as they may be, companies like RIM, Google and Facebook are, by definition, only as strong as their individual users allow them to be. Their might is primarily measured not by exports, production or sales, but by their respective abilities to connect people, and to streamline the flow of information. In order to stay ahead of the curve, then, telecom companies are forced to constantly reach across borders; to troll the globe in search of new customers, new markets and new clicks.
According to conventional wisdom, moreover, this is exactly what modern technology is supposed to do. The internet, we’ve been told, is the world’s new global village—a frictionless vacuum where information seamlessly flows across borders, and at speeds that seem to defy geography, politics and the laws of physics.
As recent months have shown, however, this vision of new technology as some sort of diplomatically immune, intra-continental super force may be just that—a vision.
Earlier this year, for example, China found itself in the middle of a frigid staring contest with Google over the San Francisco-based company’s refusal to censor search results—a pillar of the communist regime’s online regulatory system. More recently, the search engine butted heads with political leaders in Germany over Google’s Street View feature, which many Germans perceived as a threat to their nationally protected privacy rights.
Both showdowns, much like the rift between RIM and the Middle East, ultimately ended in varying degrees of compromise. Even with all of its globally renowned might and influence, two of the tech world’s heaviest hitters still couldn’t overcome the deeply engrained, proud ethos of national sovereignty.
For now, then, it appears that global telecommunications companies will have no choice but to tip-toe around the intersecting minefields of diplomacy, national security and regulatory policy. But what about the consumer? And, more specifically, what about the businessmen and women working in the Middle East?
Let’s ignore, for a moment, the more abstract, politically charged questions surrounding issues like governmental surveillance, or the delicate balance between counterterrorist efforts and civil rights. While these questions are certainly pertinent to any discussion involving international tech enterprise, they can all too easily lead us down murkier, more subjective channels of thought.
Within this more depoliticized context, then, the most serious consequences of RIM’s Middle East crisis stem not from any Big Brotherly police states it may spawn, but from the sultry climate of economic uncertainty it may inculcate.
Sure, RIM may have met Emirate demands, but it’s still unclear how it actually did so. Both parties have been suspiciously tight-lipped about the agreement, and haven’t publicly acknowledged any specific change that spurred the recent decision to keep BlackBerrys humming in the country. The UAE, of course, may insist on such privacy in the interest of national security, but its ambiguity probably won’t do much to ease the minds of Emirate, Saudi or Indian businessmen worried when the specter of a new blackout might rear its ugly head.
Uncertainty can always pose a cancerous threat to a market, and cautious hesitation can easily snowball into rampant, herd-like speculation. Fortunately, that probably won’t happen to the BlackBerry market anytime soon. At the moment, RIM’s smartphone is too firmly embedded within the culture of modern business to be abandoned over one cascade of international controversy.
Pete Sampras, after all, never abandoned his Pro Staff, and global businessmen likely won’t be tossing away their BlackBerrys for the foreseeable future.
RIM and Google’s recent travails, however, do speak to a larger, hazy reality that may be difficult for most technology-addled consumers to swallow. Telecommunications may give us the world at our fingertips, but the world is still capable of flipping the “off” switch, at any moment.
*Amar Toor, a contributing editor to Majalla, writes about technology for AOL/strong>