Justice attempts to avert a BlackBerry shutdown

Department pushing to ensure that government users will be exempt from any court-ordered disruption in service.

A recent federal court ruling threatens to shut down the popular e-mail tool that has gone from wireless wonder to a necessity for thousands of federal employees.

Judge James Spencer of the Virginia Federal District Court issued an opinion Wednesday declining to enforce a $450 million settlement between Research in Motion Ltd., the company that makes the Blackberry e-mail devices, and the Arlington, Va.-based patent holding company NTP. This could mean that RIM would no longer be allowed to support or sell the handheld devices in the United States.

The Justice Department filed a brief with the court in mid-November asking for a 90-day stay to ensure that government workers can continue using the service in the event of a court-mandated shutdown.

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said he cannot comment on the case beyond acknowledging that there are "a lot" of BlackBerry users at the department.

The Justice brief, submitted by Paul McNulty, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, stated that "it is imperative that some mechanism be incorporated that permits continuity of the federal government's use of BlackBerry devices and establishes some procedure for identifying those devices that lie outside the scope of any injunction entered in this action."

NTP said that a legal provision would exempt government BlackBerry users, along with other nongovernment emergency responders, from any injunction that might shut down the system. But the Justice brief stated that RIM may not easily be able to identify government users.

The brief asked for time to create a "white list," in the form of a database that would identify users with e-mail addresses ending in .gov or .mil. Because there is no central purchasing office for BlackBerries, each agency would have to compile a list of these users individually. This would be time consuming and difficult, Justice said.

RIM said it could not break out the current number of government BlackBerry users, but in November 2004, Government Executive reported that there were 100,000 local, state and federal government customers out of a total of 1.3 million users.

Any loss of BlackBerry service would be a challenge to government officials who work on emergency response matters, said a federal employee and BlackBerry user who asked to remain anonymous. But ending the service for noncritical workers could save the government thousands of dollars a day, he said.

Cathy Deeds, director of congressional and public affairs for the Office of Special Counsel, said that she and her friends "joke about our 'CrackBerries' because we rely on them so much."

"But it certainly makes my work somewhat easier and more efficient to be able to communicate with people from anywhere at any time," Deeds said.

A Homeland Security Department employee who frequently uses his BlackBerry said that while the devices have become an integral part of doing business and have increased productivity, he's not sure that a loss of service would be detrimental to operations.

"We rely on our BlackBerry for convenience, but still have solid procedures in place operationally," the employee said.

RIM, a Waterloo, Ontario-based company, said that in preparation for a potential injunction, it has prepared a software workaround. The company said the matter also could become irrelevant after the Patent and Trademark Office goes through further proceedings related to NTP's patents, which it has declared invalid.

More details will be made available on the software workaround if such a step becomes necessary, RIM said in a statement.