The BBM debate: Can speech ever be consequence free?

The latest call to intercept messages on the Blackberry Messenger (BBM) platform, by South African Deputy-Communications minister, Obed Bapela, threw the veritable cat amongst the pigeons with regard to freedom of speech and privacy. This call resonated globally, with TechCrunch and other media houses worldwide commenting on the statement.

South Africa’s own level-headed communications minister Roy Padayachie was quick to clear the air. He has stated categorically that there is no current plan to intercept or regulate BBM specifically, but did add rather ominously, that the government was still drafting a policy statement that “will review current regulatory and legislative instruments with respect to cyber-space matters”.

To put the whole issue into context, RIM the makers of the Blackberry system have been in the spotlight lately. The most recent high profile case centred around the riots in London. Here BBM was singled out by the British Prime Minister David Cameron, who called, in general, for control over social networking platforms in times of civil unrest. This rather hysterical response from Cameron, and many of his cabinet, was extremely ironic when you consider the almost universal condemnation that resulted due to the cutting of communications in the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring popular uprising.

What all this does is highlight just how global and pervasive the increasing mistrust of communications platforms by various governments, including our own in South Africa, has become. This new conservative, and potentially repressive, trend is deeply troubling. It is clear that as mobile communication technology, coupled with the staggering rise of social media and its many platforms, continue to sweep the planet, governments and law enforcement agencies are feeling increasingly paranoid.

This paranoia, unfortunately, has some merit. As communication becomes easier and faster, and social media platforms become increasingly ubiquitous. Those that wish to subvert the law, or ferment unrest, in whatever manner, are increasingly using the platforms on offer. The big question that is being asked by many of us, is this cause or effect? Should we allow our basic rights, such as privacy, to be trampled on, in the search for safety and security?

The singling out of Blackberry in this debate goes to show that success always has repercussions. The BBM application has become the default way that people, especially cost conscious younger people, communicate. SMS is fast losing its lustre, and instant messaging platforms such as BBM and WhatsApp are taking over.

The BBM messaging service, specifically, has been targeted by governments from India to England, and now in South Africa. In many cases, having listened to the hysterical arguments following the London riots, and the repressive justifications from other parts of the world, such as the Middle East, the culprit is not the technology but ignorance of its implications and usage, and the propensity of those in power to misunderstand the nature of the information and communications revolution.

In South Africa Regulation and Interception of Communications Act(RICA), came into effect in June 2011. This act was based partly on legislation in place in other parts of the world, and on some clear thinking on the government’s behalf. RICA promised us safety and security if we all registered our SIMs, and our physical location. Unfortunately to date we have not been shown a single documented instance of criminality, to use a government term, having been solved using these tools. The fault is not in the legislation but in the implementation, and the simple fact that the act, however well intentioned, is almost impossible to implement and enforce, even if South Africa was a sophisticated and technologically advanced first world economy.

I applaud government’s goals of reducing crime, the problem I have is that in regulating everything that moves, they trivialise the law and in fact make things so cumbersome and so convoluted, that they in fact end up facilitating the very crime they wish to regulate. Chasing platforms like BBM is a no win game, criminals will simply move on to the next big thing, which in turn will have to be re-regulated all over again. The endless chase never works in the favour of Government, who are far less nimble and adaptable than technology, or the criminals who use it.

This whole episode has once again highlighted that the South African Government, and many around the world, should view technology as simply another tool. They all need to get the fundamental crime fighting basics and intelligence gathering right. Once these basics are effectively implemented, their fight will get more effective. The simple fact is that the continuously evolving technology landscape, and its multitude of uses, will no longer be such a perceived problem. The big thing to remember is that people are not changing nearly as fast as technology.



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