Government Vs. Telecoms: Where Does The Consumer Fit In?

A Saudi man walks into a BlackBerry store. i i

hide captionA man enters a mobile shop at a market in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital. Some Saudis are trying to sell their BlackBerrys ahead of a ban on the smart phone's messenger service in the kingdom, but with few willing to buy, they are having to slash prices.

AP
A Saudi man walks into a BlackBerry store.

A man enters a mobile shop at a market in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital. Some Saudis are trying to sell their BlackBerrys ahead of a ban on the smart phone's messenger service in the kingdom, but with few willing to buy, they are having to slash prices.

AP

The news for BlackBerry maker Research in Motion hasn't been great of late. First, Nielsen reports some troubling news about its market share, then a number of countries including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia announce they may start blocking its systems because they are too hard to access.

That latter development has all kinds of implications for national security and international business relations. So much so that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has now gotten the U.S. State Department involved.

But situations like these also present an everyday conundrum.

In essence, what the UAE and other countries are asking for are the keys to Canadian-based RIM's databases. They want to be able to monitor, quickly and without the hindrance of having to decrypt information, potential national security threats. RIM faces a real tough question: Whose side does it take? Does it stick with the security it promised its customers? Or does it give the government what it wants, because not doing so could significantly hurt its business?

The same kind of thing has played out with Google in its dealings with China. Or AT&T, Verizon and Sprint in their dealings with the National Security Agency.

Cindy Cohn, the legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says things in the BlackBerry case are pretty clear.

"They shouldn't blink. They should be saying no [to the UAE]. They should look out for the interest of their customers," she says. "Sometimes you just have to do the right thing."

And in the long term, she adds, this is in the best interest of RIM, anyway. If it caves and gives a country like UAE access to its customers' data, companies that use RIM's enterprise software to do serious business would most likely turn to another solution.

One of BlackBerry's most marketed appeals is that the devices are extremely secure. So much so, RIM says, that even it doesn't have access to read its customers' messages.

Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C., says the situation RIM has on its hands is more complicated.

"A company's responsibility is to follow the law," he says. "Under certain legal conditions [governments] have access to intercepts. And a sovereign country can decide these arrangements."

In statements, RIM has said it does cooperate with governments. In the United States, the company has said, it allows government access to a customer's information if correct legal procedures have been followed.

Atkinson says it's a delicate balance.

"To be responsible to their customers, a telcom company should not just be doormats for what government wants," he says. "But companies have to abide by law."

In the U.S., one of the prime examples of companies bending to the government's interpretation of the laws came back in 2006, when news broke that the National Security Agency was being provided e-mails, Web browsing and other Internet traffic information directly by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth. The government was collecting mass amounts of data without warrants and most of the people targeted were not suspected of any crime.

Atkinson doesn't fault the three telecoms for their acquiescence. In that situation, he thinks the companies didn't necessarily have to say no to the government. But, he says, they should have brought the issue out in public, involving Congress to seek clarification of whether what the executive branch was doing was legal.

The EFF takes a tougher stance. It expects a company to be proactive.

"The first thing a company should do is to hold the country to its own law. I don't know of any country that allows mass surveillance," Cohn says. "I don't know of any country whose laws require a company to enable mass surveillance."

She argues that the U.S. broke the law in 2006 by engaging in mass surveillance and says that's what the UAE is asking to do.

Many times companies do challenge the government. RIM hasn't backed down. Yahoo is still fighting an effort to allow prosecutors to obtain e-mails without warrants.

But many other times, companies yield to government. Before changing its policy earlier this year, Google censored search results in China. MSN, AOL and Yahoo have all turned over search records to the government.

"In these cases, maybe they take their customers for granted," Cohn says. "Or maybe they bank on the idea their customers won't know."

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