Research In Motion has indicated to the U.K. government that it would comply with orders to shut down its BlackBerry Messenger service at a time of civil unrest. Is this acceptable?
Speaking to politicians as part of the U.K. government's ongoing investigation into August's riots, RIM executive Stephen Bates said that the BlackBerry maker would disable its popular instant messaging service if the U.K. government asked it to.
"From our perspective we comply with the law and if the instruction ... would be to close down the mobile networks which is the method by which that would be enacted, we would then comply, we would then work with those mobile operators to help them meet the obligations as defined by that act," Bates said.
BlackBerry Messenger--more commonly known as BBM--uses RIM's push servers to deliver short messages between BlackBerrys. It is used by professionals and consumers alike to avoid text messaging charges. It is also secure, encrypted, and very, very reliable.
U.K. authorities believe that BBM was used by citizens in order to organize and in some instances incite last month's riots. Rioters mostly avoided use of Twitter and Facebook because they aren't as secure as RIM's BBM platform.
RIM agreed to help the United Kingdom investigate the riots and the role played by its technology.
"As in all markets around the world where BlackBerry is available, we cooperate with local telecommunications operators, law enforcement, and regulatory officials," said the company in a statement last month.
RIM has not said if it has handed over conversation records to the U.K. government.
I fully understand that the U.K. government may want to protect its citizens during civil unrest or other events that put the public in danger. But cutting off communications channels--especially those we've come to rely on every day--seems like the worst path to take toward safety. Granted, RIM's BBM service is one small communications tool. It would be much worse for all cellular communication systems to be taken down or put on hold.
Such moves could lead to as much harm as they might prevent.
Let's look at a U.S. example. The East Coast recently suffered through a hurricane. (Obviously this is different from riots, but stick with me.) Ahead of the storm, the cellular network operators did what they could to ensure that their networks would remain functional. For the most part, they did.
But what if they hadn't?
I made more voice calls during and just after the storm than I have perhaps in the previous three months combined. It was absolutely necessary to coordinate with family, friends, and neighbors who were impacted by the storm. Without working cell phones as the disaster unfolded, some of my fellow New Jerseyans surely could have found themselves in a dangerous situation with no way to reach out for help other than to scream.
Should governments even be asking technology and communications companies to do such things in times of strife? In my mind, the idea brings up a lot of thorny issues that aren't easy to answer.
What do you think?
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