Political activists in Gulf states where the maker of BlackBerry faces possible bans say its messaging service boosted their ranks, and they are now on the hunt for new ways to evade authorities.
Social concerns have been overshadowed by security warnings as governments from India to Algeria prod Research In Motion for access to encrypted BlackBerry programs, particularly its free Messenger texting service.
Messenger was revolutionary for people here, said UAE lawyer and human rights activist Abdel Hamid. It awakened them. That's something that won't just disappear.
BlackBerry Messenger was unique in its immediacy, ease of use, and secure encryption; It wasn't a Facebook page to maintain, or an e-mail the government could monitor.
While numbers on those using the encrypted service for activism or simple dissent are hard to establish, activists say such ranks are growing.
It brought us new people we hadn't reached before. Not everybody uses the Internet but everyone uses the phone, said Nabeel Rajab, of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who used BlackBerry to attract a few thousand online followers.
Many Gulf residents were once silenced by anxieties over state-monitored mobile phones and Internet. Criticism was stifled and protests banned, and political debate was rare.
Activists in the United Arab Emirates, which threatened to suspend not only Messenger but emailing and web browsing on BlackBerry in October, say they may have helped prompt the ban.
When BlackBerry came, I started to get messages criticizing the government from people I'd never seen involved in activism. Regular people started discussing taboo subjects, said Ahmed Mansour, a UAE blogger. It widened the circle of interest.
Messenger campaigns in the UAE have included critiques of state officials and attempts to organize protests.
A UAE police officer was fired after sending BlackBerry messages to encourage protests against rising fuel prices, the Arabic daily Al Emarat al Youm reported on Monday.
These efforts mirror events across the Middle East where Facebook has helped organize Egyptian democratic reform protests and Twitter and texts were used in Iranian protests against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election last year.
CAT AND MOUSE
Banning BlackBerry services will intensify the game of cat and mouse with censors, activists say.
UAE users, like those in Saudi, are messaging each other to plot alternatives, including reverting to using proxy servers to evade censors, or anonymous forums and emails until the authorities shut them down.
There is competition between governments and activists: The governments here ban, and the activists try to break it, said Rajab regarding Gulf users.
UAE-based Mansour said Gulf governments overlooked Messenger for a long time, even as the service fueled sales across the region, led by Saudi Arabia with more than 700,000 users.
Not everyone knew about encryption. They just knew the government didn't seem to notice, he said.
He and others believe that Messenger, as with technologies that came before it, will be hard for users to relinquish. A lot of these youngsters don't even set up an email account, they are more attached to these new gadgets.
In Saudi Arabia, young people use Messenger to communicate covertly with members of the opposite sex -- a form of dissent, if not activism, in the conservative Islamic country.
Skype may be one alternative should countries ban or begin to monitor Messenger. Activists say international partners are already training them to use the encrypted Internet telephony system and evade censorship.
Across the Gulf, governments are revealing various concerns, with Bahrain having cautioned against using BlackBerry to distribute local news while Kuwait wants a block on pornography.
Saudi Arabia is working on servers which may make it easier for authorities there to monitor BlackBerry traffic while the UAE so far is sticking to plans for its sweeping ban.
This will definitely impact the level of activism until a secure alternative is found. Until then, I guess we are back to Facebook, Mansour said.
(Editing by Jason Neely and Charles Dick)