09/12/2011 05:56 GMT | Updated 08/02/2012 05:12 GMT

BlackBerry Has Some Explaining to do

As I travel the globe talking about online child protection I have been delighted to be able to tell audiences about the exemplary response of the British mobile phone industry to some of the challenges of online child protection.

The Code

The story begins nearly eight years ago as the 3G revolution starts to pick up speed. In January 2004 the UK mobile phone industry published their Code of Practice for the Self-Regulation of New Forms of Content on Mobiles (the Code). A world first.

Under the Code the mobile phone networks created a Classification Framework and introduced an adult bar which was based on it. Behind the bar was a list of web sites which contained pornography, or sold or promoted things like gambling, alcohol, tobacco and so on. This list was applied by default to every Pay As You Go mobile phone account in the land. Pay As You Go is overwhelmingly what children and young people use. The list was also applied by default to the great majority of phones paid for via monthly accounts where mostly the users are adults.

To get the adult bar lifted and gain access to the sites behind it was not difficult. You just had to ask and also prove you were over 18.

Blocking child pornography

About the same time, or perhaps this got going a bit earlier, each of the mobile phone networks also started to block access to web pages containing child pornography. No brainer. All such content is illegal. Another world first for the UK mobile phone industry. Their actions spoke volumes about their good intentions.

The mobile phone networks were able to block child abuse images because they joined and supported the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). This meant they were able to obtain access to the IWF's list of addresses containing the illegal content. As with the adult content list, the child abuse images list was also deployed on each company's servers.

The fact that the mobile networks were engaging in blocking illegal child abuse images is referred to in section 3 of their Code. However, unlike the adult list, there never was any question of anyone being given a right to ask for this bar to be lifted or removed. No network wants to allow or help anyone get at child abuse images through their systems.

It's a phone, Jim, but not as we know it

So far so good. Now let's look at what happens with BlackBerry. Their mobile phones are different. Unique. The company that makes the BlackBerry is called Research In Motion (RIM). Famously, RIM encrypts the data, the network traffic, that is transmitted to or comes out of their handsets. This was one of the reasons why certain governments around the world for some time did not allow BlackBerry handsets to be sold in their countries. The local security services couldn't intercept and read what was going on. They did not like that idea at all.

In effect RIM constructed or became a portal or something analogous to a portal. Everything had to go through their gateway. The practical consequence of this was that, in fact, none of the UK's mobile phone networks could ever easily or conveniently apply the IWF list or the adult content list in relation to their customers who used BlackBerry devices. They all looked to BlackBerry to resolve it for them. The mobile phone networks wanted all of their customers to be in the same place, irrespective of which manufacturer's handsets they were using.

OFCOM gives the mobile networks a clean bill of health

Any problems with any of this? Not as far as we knew. In August, 2008, OFCOM published the results of its first official review of the operation of the Code. This is what OFCOM said (at page 3)

Overall, we find the Code to be effective in restricting young people's access to inappropriate content and a good example of industry self-regulation. Based on interviews with operators and stakeholders, we believe that the Code and (the Classification) Framework are understood and readily adopted by all concerned.

OFCOM gave the mobile industry a clean bill of health. Nobody was surprised. It was what we all expected.

The OFCOM Review did not look at the operation of the IWF list to block access to child abuse images. It merely observed in the last paragraph of 4.1 (at page 9)

While outside the scope of this Review, we note that all of the operators are in receipt of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) list, which contains web addresses or URLs of known websites carrying images of child abuse. This list, when used in conjunction with other technical controls, facilitates the blocking of access to such sites. All the mobile operators make use of the IWF URL list.

You will note that OFCOM made no reservations or qualifications in respect of BlackBerry or anyone else for that matter, either in relation to the adult content code or the IWF list.

To dwell on the IWF list for a moment, while OFCOM said they did not review its operation they nonetheless still felt able to say in their report

All the mobile operators make use of the IWF URL list.

This became the orthodoxy. I would like to think OFCOM did not include this wording gratuitously. I imagine that the subject of the IWF list was at least discussed during the review and OFCOM's personnel were given assurances which they were happy to accept. However, it might be worth revisiting this. Perhaps someone in OFCOM, or somewhere, could confirm that they remain satisfied that, at the time of the 2008 review (and therefore by implication until very recently) the adult content list and the IWF list were both being applied by all of the networks to all of their customers.

But that is no longer the case

A few months ago I got a phone call from a journalist on a Sunday newspaper telling me he had heard that BlackBerry had or were about to abandon their practice of filtering child pornography sites and adult content for all of the UK's mobile phone networks. The journalist was having trouble getting anyone to speak to him so he wondered what I knew. The simple answer was I knew nothing new since the OFCOM review but I said I would see what I could find out.

No smoke without fire. When I contacted them several people in different networks said that BlackBerry had indeed been making noises of the kind the journalist had alluded to but it seemed then nothing had actually changed. I was assured that the status quo was still in place. It's hard to get worked up about something that might or might not happen.

BlackBerry speaks

I got in touch with one of BlackBerry's senior corporate people in the UK. It wasn't difficult. We both sit on the Executive Board of UKCCIS, the official UK Government agency for dealing with online child protection policy.

The Board is jointly chaired by two Ministers. Until recently James Brokenshire MP from the Home Office was one of them but he has been replaced recently by Lynne Featherstone MP also a Minister at the Home Office. Tim Loughton MP from Education is the other joint Minister and Board meetings are also occasionally adorned by the presence of Ed Vaizey MP, a Minister at DCMS.

I met face to face with BlackBerry in July. I was assured that BlackBerry had made no changes to the arrangements which had been in place for some time. I was also told BlackBerry then had no plans to change anything in that department and they certainly had no intention of trying to charge the networks for anything they were currently doing for free. You cannot argue with that. Completely clear and unambiguous. No story appeared in the media. Absent any firm evidence to the contrary it is difficult to gainsay a straight denial.

All goes quiet on the BlackBerry front

All then goes quiet. Until last week. My attention was drawn to a notice which had been put up on 3's web site. It reads as follows

"Note: If you're using a BlackBerry, we can't put a filter on your phone. This is because BlackBerry apply their own settings to access the internet"

Transparent? No. Elliptical? Cryptic? Yes. Why had this caveat appeared out of the blue where previously there had been nothing? Had something changed? If so, what and when?

At first everyone started clamming up. I took that as a sure sign. Then finally two networks confirmed that, right now, they believe none of their BlackBerry users are covered either by the adult content blocking policy or by the IWF list blocking policy. Another network said they believed some BlackBerry models were still covered but they acknowledged not all of their BlackBerry users are any more.

Why is BlackBerry so important? Not hard to work that one out. Their handsets have a substantial share of the UK market. If the IWF list or the adult content list is not working on any of them or even on a large number that leaves a gaping hole. It also means we need to modify the language we use in terms of how we describe the state of play in online child protection policy in the UK.

In addition we know from various research reports that BlackBerry handsets are hugely popular with kids, not least because some models provide a free text messaging service. As a result, what happens with and on these devices is unusually important for online child safety both in respect of children potentially being exposed to child abuse images and in relation to exposure to adult content.

Why did BlackBerry do it?

Why have Blackberry decided to stop running services which keeps adult sites away from children or indeed anyone who has not asked for the adult bar to be lifted? And what exactly is the position with the IWF list? When did universal coverage under either or both headings cease to be a fact? Was it ever a fact?

Was OFCOM, CEOP, the Government or anyone in authority informed of any changes to what was very widely understood to be the status quo? If not why not? This is a scandal which risks putting a big dent in the credibility of the whole notion of self-regulation of the internet in the UK, if not elsewhere as well.

Even if there is a good reason for BlackBerry to change their policy, would it not nonetheless have been better for them to maintain the status quo ante until a new system was in place?

BlackBerry have had their problems but.....

We all know that BlackBerry have had a rough time of it of late. Not that long ago large parts of their service went walkabout. RIM put those problems right within days. As far as I am concerned, and I know many of my child protection colleagues will feel the same, getting the child protection stuff right also merits the kind of high priority top management attention it obviously has not been receiving.

My understanding is that all of the UK's mobile phone networks have been tearing their hair out trying to get RIM to sit down with them and resolve this but it hasn't happened. Meanwhile what are the networks to do? Cut off all of their customers who use BlackBerry devices? I am sure some people will say that is exactly what they should have done but I think that is rather an extreme view and it ought not to be necessary when RIM have it within their gift to avoid it.

Should the mobile networks have warned parents or the public or some of their customers? 3 made a somewhat obtuse effort at doing so. I can think of several large children's organisations who issue Blackberry devices to their staff who are going to be less than pleased with this news.

RIM is not only on the Executive Board of UKCCIS they have also been very actively engaged with the European Commission in relation to the announcement made last week by Neelie Kroes.

Research In Motion's name appears on the list of companies that promised Commissioner Kroes they would do both of the things they have stopped doing in the UK, or perhaps in one case never did.

Blackberry has some explaining to do.