Formal content regulation on social networks and messenger services like BlackBerry’s BBM is currently a topic of heated discussion around the world. Governments in disparate countries from the UK, Saudi Arabia, India, UAE to South Africa have been making noises about regulating the free-for-all on popular social media sites and tools.
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On Monday South African deputy communications minister, Obed Bapela, called for new regulations that will allow police authority access messages sent via BlackBerry’s encrypted messenger service (BBM), reports Business Day.
Bapela said the government was now considering regulations following calls from the UK and Saudi Arabia for decryption of BlackBerry messages.
Speaking at Telkom’s Southern African Telecommunication Network and Application conference Bapela explained that policy would include provisions for government to be able to decrypt BBM communications “if crimes are committed using the BlackBerry service”.
The report further states that Bapela’s proposed legislation would be used only once a crime had been committed — and the permission of a magistrate would be required before accessing the data. However, Bapela states that South Africa has a “high threat of crime” which requires high priority.
Experts argue that South Africa already has legislation allowing this — the Regulation of Interception of Communication Act (RICA). Earlier this year millions of South Africans registered their SIM cards fearing disconnection. RICA allows government authorities to track a number that has been registered in the event that it is used to commit a crime.
The London riots led the UK government to enter into discussions about limiting access to social networks and messenger services such Research In Motion’s BlackBerry Messenger service during times of unrest.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron stated that the “free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill… [perhaps] it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
Regulations like these raise concerns about the erosion of one of the core tenants of modern democracies: Freedom of expression.
In the UK, RIM issued a statement saying, “We welcome the opportunity for consultation together with other companies in the technology and telecommunication industry. RIM continues to comply with both UK privacy laws as well as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which are of course the same laws that apply to other technology and telecommunications companies in the UK”.
Last year Saudi Arabia banned messenger functions on all BlackBerry devices claiming they posed security concerns. The United Arab Emirates also called for a ban of some BlackBerry services. The security concerns raised by both gulf states was because Blackberry handsets automatically send the encrypted data to computer servers outside the two countries, reports the BBC.
“It’s a huge mistake to go the Saudi Arabia route. It is hardly democratic. In the UK politicians don’t understand technology and the evidence presented against BBM was purely circumstantial. Just because 37 percent of the youth use BBM doesn’t justify or prove that it was used to incite violence. It is nonsensical to use these countries as examples and it completely trivialises crime,” says Arthur Goldstuck head of World Wide Worx research organisation, when asked to comment about the proposed South African legislation.
Goldstuck further states that, “the motive in Saudi Arabia was political and a freedom of speech issue. BBM is fully convered by RICA, and telecommunications operators are required to grant access to encrypted data following a court order when a crime is committed. This what the minster intends, however, he undermines this intention by targeting BBM specifically. Crimes are more likely to be committed using various communication services such as emails, SMSes and voice calls.”
RIM also last year allowed Indian security authorities to monitor Blackberry services after the authorities also expressed security concerns.
“We won’t compromise on the security architecture of our corporate e-mails,” said RIM’s India spokesman, Satchit Gayakwad.
“We respect the requirements of regulatory bodies in terms of security, but we also look at the customer’s need for privacy.”
Following the posting of a staged Facebook image of a white “hunter” kneeling over the apparently lifeless body of a black child, calls for regulation have become louder in South African government circles.