These past three nights London, and now other parts of the UK, have been victim to extreme riots by a disenfranchised youth who seem intent on causing chaos with no clear demands. According to the Metropolitan Police, the BBC, The Guardian and various other independent sources, the majority of the organising of the riots has taken place through RIM’s BlackBerry Messenger service (BBM). BlackBerry Messenger is a platform that allows users and owners of BlackBerry handsets to send private and public messages to each other. Users are identified by a screename and a PIN. BBM is believed to be the preferred method for the London Riot organisers because it’s essentially a private social network where almost all messages are encrypted when they leave the sender's phone – meaning that many messages are untraceable by the authorities. RIM, the creators of the BlackBerry, has previously insisted that it cannot decrypt users' messages when sent on the devices. According to a recent OFCOM study BlackBerry devices account for 37% of the teenage smartphone market.
Yesterday afternoon rumours started to circulate throughout Twitter, Facebook and other social networks, that RIM were going to blackout and close down its BBM service over London for the evening, in an attempt to roadblock the organising of further riots. This rumoured blackout was denied by RIM and never happened, but it raises an interesting point. With the increasing reliance on private social networks and platforms to organise protests, events, and other acts of freedom of speech; what happens when a company is ordered to close down a network for ‘national security’ matters?
In June Apple announced its own take on a private social network for iPhone users, iMessage. Many other handset manufacturers have started to integrate Facebook’s Chat platform into their devices. With this move away from open standards, such as SMS, to privately closed networks we’re gaining many new features but are we sacrificing the open communication platform that we all call for in times of need or free protest?
Unfortunately with the riots in London, and across the UK, freedom of speech will suffer. Instead of addressing the issues with the materialistic capitalist system, which encourages an obsession with wealth, possessions and leads to looting when angry; it will be freedom of speech and civil rights that will be affected. Looting is predominantly a western-world problem. When the “free world” gets angry it takes what it feels it’s entitled to, possessions. When oppressed nations and people get angry and speak out they take what they feel entitled to, civil liberties. A stark contrast.
Since starting this article this morning, reports have started to appear that mobile internet access is being restricted by authorities in the West Midlands and Birmingham, in an attempt to prevent users from communicating through the BBM service.
What do you think the implications are when we rely on closed privately controlled networks to control with each other? Should there be some sort of unrestricted back-channel that can always be relied on for private and open communication?