Should we trust tech companies talking about censoring speech?

The complete lack of transparency with telecommunication firms deciding with the assistance of government if and when calls or web connections should be stopped or censored is highly disturbing. Who wants a faceless firm making such decisions? From yesterday’s UK Observer:

After the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and this summer’s looting in England, there is no longer any doubt about the speed with which large crowds can be mobilized on to the streets. As flash-mobbing morphs into flash-robbing, the attention of British authorities is turning to the mobile phones and social media that empower everything from benign groups dancing in railway stations to the vandalism of entire high streets.

During the riots, two London MPs called for a BlackBerry Messenger curfew, proposing a 6pm to 6am shutdown of the service being used by gangs to organize looting. It was not implemented but in the aftermath, a review of police powers, including those to intervene in mobile communications, was announced. Theresa May is to meet Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (Rim) to discuss tighter controls, and the prime minister has warned: “When people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them.”

Companies and politicians are being forced to rethink the extent to which governments or the police should be able interfere with communication networks. This year has seen at least two heavy-handed interventions. The Egyptian government ordered the closure of Vodafone’s network, and those of other operators, during the Tahrir square uprising. Vodafone remained down for 24 hours, and when service resumed the company was strong-armed into sending out pro-government text messages urging demonstrators to stay at home.

In the week of the England riots, the operator of San Francisco’s subway pulled the plug on its own mobile network for three hours, even preventing passengers from making emergency calls. In an echo of the killing that sparked the Tottenham riots, the San Francisco shutdown was designed to prevent a demonstration over the fatal shooting of an unarmed man by a… transport policeman. Last year, Vodafone’s partner company in Bahrain complied with restrictions forcing sim card users to register their personal details. More than 400,000 of those who did not were cut off.

While new companies such as Twitter are beginning to work out where they stand on such issues, the mobile phone networks are used to operating under heavy regulation and have well established systems for co-operating with police. O2, for example, has a high-security police liaison team in Slough which employs 30 staff who are constantly in touch with police over anything from missing persons to murders.

“Switching off any network element or any device should be a last resort,” says Mike Short, European technology vice-president for Telefónica, which runs the O2 network. O2’s view, and that of its fellow carriers, can be summed up by its advertising slogan: “We’re better connected.”

There is only one reported case of a UK network being closed by police. During the 7/7 London suicide bombings, O2 phone masts in a 1km square area around Aldgate tube station were disconnected for a number of hours.

“We don’t want to be big brother about this,” says Short. “The service is primarily for our customers, if we can help the police under law that is also fine but we don’t want to change our systems just for a few incidents, however great they are.”

He says the industry would welcome guidance in the next Communications Act, for which a green paper is expected by Christmas. In the UK as in most other nations, the government has the right to pull the plug if it sees fit, but mobile phone operators are coming under pressure to promote best practice.

Access, which lobbies for communication freedom, suggests a set of principles that would include only closing networks as a last resort for short periods, ensuring all phones can call emergency services during a shutdown, and refusing to act as a spokesperson for a regime.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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