The chief of the U.N.'s telecommunications agency urged the Canadian manufacturer of the BlackBerry, Research In Motion (RIM) to allow law enforcement agencies access to customer data, saying that governments all over the world had legitimate security concerns which should not be ignored.
The International Telecommunication Union agency's Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure said that all governments engaged in the fight against terrorism had the right to demand access to users' information from the maker of the BlackBerry.
"Those are genuine requests," he told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "There is a need for cooperation between governments and the private sector on security issues."
RIM has said it complies with all legal requests, but is unable to provide anyone with the text of e-mails sent using its corporate service, which is designed from the ground up for secure communications.
The International Telecommunication Union is responsible for coordinating the use of the global radio spectrum, promoting international cooperation in assigning satellite orbits, and establishing standards for the telecommunications industry. The little-known body also serves as a global forum for discussion of cutting-edge communications issues.
The agency has no independent regulatory power, but Toure's comments are a barometer of sentiment among the agency's 192 member states, who are expected to re-elect him to a second term later this year.
At least five of those members -- India, Indonesia, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates -- are already considering banning some BlackBerry services over concerns that the devices' powerful data encryption could be used as a cover for terrorist and criminal activity.
Civil libertarians have argued that the controversy is in fact fueled by authoritarian governments' inability to eavesdrop on BlackBerry-using citizens. Governments in the U.S. and elsewhere have largely made their peace with encryption technology. E-mails can still be obtained through legal channels, for example by obtaining a warrant to search the corporate servers of companies that use BlackBerrys. But that isn't enough for some officials in Asia and the Middle East, who have demanded that RIM modify its practices to allow them wholesale access to BlackBerry e-mails as they're being transmitted.
RIM has thrown up its hands, saying the way its system is set up prevents anyone except its clients from decrypting communications. The impasse has sent the company's share price plummeting, and on Friday RIM stock hit a 16-month low.
A company representative in London did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Toure's remarks.
The 57-year-old Toure is in the British capital this week in an effort to drum up private investment for an effort to spread broadband coverage across the globe. He has argued that hooking developing countries up with high-speed Internet access can have huge knock-on benefits, boosting education, business, health care, transparency and more.
Toure has gathered business and political leaders to form a Broadband Commission for Digital Development, a high-profile group devoted to lobbying governments for broadband-friendly regulations. The commission delivers its report to the United Nations later this month.
In an interview before the report, Toure also fielded questions about network neutrality and allegations of Iranian interference with foreign satellite broadcasts.
Toure declined to explicitly say whether he backed network neutrality, the name given to the principle that service providers should treat all Internet traffic equally.
Some service providers argue that, having invested billions on their networks, they should be allowed to manage Internet traffic as they see fit -- for example by giving priority to their own content, preventing applications such as file-sharing from hogging bandwidth, or creating premium services which charge more for faster access.
Toure expressed opposition to attempts to create a two-tier Internet, telling companies they should focus on "ensuring that the best quality signal is offered to anyone, including your competitors."
He also said that talks between satellite provider Eutelstat and the Iranian government were ongoing following allegations that the clerical regime had been jamming foreign signals following its disputed presidential vote last year.
Western media organization said Tehran had been obstructing their broadcasts in a bid to choke off media coverage of the unrest that followed the election of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to a second term, and the European Union has taken its case to Toure.
Toure said the parties have been in talks at his office in Geneva as recently as Monday, but didn't go into the details of the discussions, except to say that "we don't see it as a big crisis." "It will be resolved," he said.