Government Control Over RIM Chips Away at Web Freedoms

Unfettered instant communication around the planet may be the most prominent example of how the Internet is changing lives today. Earlier this year, it was China censoring Google (s goog), and now India is demanding that Research In Motion (s rimm) provide the Indian government access to encrypted mail both for personal and corporate accounts. India is simply following the precedent RIM set by last week allowing the Saudi Arabian government to monitor communications — a dangerous precedent that goes against the very spirit of the Internet itself as technology companies attempt to manage privacy with access.

For its part, RIM is balancing on a high wire, trying to resolve each situation as it arises. One on hand, the company risks losing business in these fast-growing, foreign markets. But if it steps too far to one side in appeasing governments, its customers in other countries may look to other solutions for fear that RIM won’t protect their private data. Caught between a rock and a hard place, it attempted to mitigate customer concerns in a published statement yesterday:

Although RIM cannot disclose confidential regulatory discussions that take place with any government, RIM assures its customers that it genuinely tries to be as cooperative as possible with governments in the spirit of supporting legal and national security requirements, while also preserving the lawful needs of citizens and corporations. RIM has drawn a firm line by insisting that any capabilities it provides to carriers for “lawful” access purposes be limited by four main principles…

The four principles can be found here, but essentially boil down to this: RIM wants to provide services in a net-neutral environment under the same guidelines in every country, not make specific deals with certain governments: somewhat odd, considering the company has already made such a deal with Saudi Arabia. Indeed, given how RIM has acquiesced to Saudi Arabia, it’s likely to do the same in India. Ironically, this isn’t the first time such a situation has risen in India. Back in 2007, one particular carrier, Tata, wasn’t initially allowed to offer RIM services because, according the Indian Department of Telecommunications, “BlackBerry service does not allow for ‘lawful interception’ mandated for all Value Added Services (VAS).”

The rationale for monitoring communication, whether by BlackBerry or any other method, is obvious. As much as the Internet has changed the world, the world now has the potential to change the Internet, and not in a good way. Terrorism existed long before the web, of course, but the web is a tool that can be used to accelerate such negative outcomes in dozens of different ways. Nasty plots and instructions to carry them out are simple to shoot across the ether. Maps and logistical data are easily accessible. Even the daily schedule for the President of the United States is now posted online, albeit in a limited fashion.

It’s understandable that nations who witnesses moral turbulence and unrest want to protect their citizens, but if RIM concedes data privacy to governments, the next obvious question is: where does it end? Could a government, for example, require Google to disable the “incognito mode” in the Chrome browser which stops capturing a user’s web history? Might a full list of my Facebook friends be delivered to a political entity to determine my ties to potential dissidents or criminals? RIM is already allowing Indian security agencies access to BlackBerry Internet, voice calls and text messages, reports the Wall Street Journal, so some freedoms have already gone up in smoke.

For many, activities on the Internet have become an extension of who we are and what we think, and the ability to control how much or how little of our thoughts, personality and private information are available to others is a crucial right. If RIM is forced to hand governments the keys to the web kingdom, individual choices in the future are ultimately handed over as well. And unless some middle ground solution is found, it appears that consumers’ right to privacy are fast eroding.

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