A handful of Asian states with varying human rights records want Research In Motion Ltd. to help them get an eye on what BlackBerry users in their countries are up to. RIM should continue to stand strong in the face of such pressure, for the benefit of its bottom line and in the name of open, free communication between people.
The issue appears to be the BlackBerry's fortress-like encryption for some business customers; RIM says the security is so strong even the company itself cannot access the communications. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have threatened to shut down BlackBerry services, and Bahrain, Kuwait, Indonesia and India have reportedly expressed concern.
These countries have varying requests of RIM and different stated interests - stopping terrorists; barring access to pornography - but they share a common goal, to control as much wireless communication within their borders as possible.
RIM's choice is part of a larger battle with autocratic governments. In a January speech, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton touted the "freedom to connect" as a value American foreign policy should energetically promote.
It is a value that communications companies have a special duty to uphold. Many states, when invited into a company's technological sanctum, would be tempted to overreach. If it is permitted to filter some web searches, it may well expand those filters. If a state gets access to e-mails to search for suspected terrorists, it will start tracking suspected dissidents. RIM cannot permit that.
There are also harder-headed reasons for RIM to resist the governments' demands. Countries such as the UAE cannot aspire to be global financial and travel destinations while restricting the technologies that come with that status. While RIM stands to lose some customers in the countries that are threatening it, it could lose far more customers across all countries if it jettisons its reputation for security.
RIM says unequivocally that it has never "provided something unique to one country that [it]has not offered to the governments of all countries." It should maintain this position.
In extreme circumstances, governments of all stripes may have good reasons to request access to some electronic communications, and RIM may be compelled, on a one-off basis, to comply. But countries need to demonstrate a pressing, immediate need, preferably with a judicial imprimatur, and not be handed a blank cheque as a routine matter. BlackBerry users should be able to presume that their communications are private, and that the state is not peering in, no matter where they are in the world.