The big mobile story of 2002 was that the number of mobile subscriptions had finally exceeded the number of land line subscriptions worldwide. In 2007, the story was that mobile subscriptions had hit 3 billion, dramatically narrowing the digital divide. Since then, the story has been about the backlash. Repressive governments like Iran, China, and Egypt have shifted their censorious gaze from the Internet to mobile phone networks, tracking data on the mobile web and shutting down SMS services before elections and during periods of mass protest.
Fortunately, activists are becoming more aware of these activities, not only by governments, but also by the private firms that help them. The Internet freedom organization Access Now has started a No to Nokia! petition, asking Nokia Siemens, the second largest telecommunications equipment supplier in the world, to “completely end all sales, support, and service of tracking and surveillance technology to governments with a record of human rights abuses”. The petition page notes that the company has admitted that their technology was used to “suppress dissent” in Iran, and Access Now alleges that at least one Iranian journalist, Isa Saharkhiz, was tracked down and imprisoned using Nokia Siemens’ technology. The American Islamic Congress also took action against Nokia Siemens last year by staging a protest outside their Manhattan store.
Researchers are also shining a light on how telecommunications companies are collaborating with governments to reveal subscribers’ private communication. The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto and the SecDev Group, an Ottawa-based think tank, have teamed up to create RIM Check (https://rimcheck.org), a research project that allows Blackberry users to check how the phone’s manufacturer Research in Motion (RIM) is routing their phone’s encrypted data. The results are retained by the RIM Check project and will be later made public. The homepage states:
Recently a number of governments have threatened to ban Research in Motion’s BlackBerry services if the company does not make encrypted BlackBerry data and other content available to state authorities . A major concern of these regimes is that BlackBerry data can be encrypted and routed through servers located outside of their jurisdictions. Unconfirmed reports have circulated that RIM has made data sharing agreements with India, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates. Other countries are also requesting the company locate data centres within their jurisdictions.
The RIM case also highlights the convergence of mobile services with the Internet, since much data traffic on the Blackberry is actually Internet traffic, rather than simple mobile service that carries SMS messages. It looks like we are headed into a second front in the war for freedom of digital expression.