Lazaridis walks, the web talks

21 Apr 2011

There’s been talk about RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis walking out of a BBC interview after being asked about the company’s issues with authorities in India and the Middle East over the ability to monitor BlackBerry’s encrypted emails.

The incident seems even odder when you watch the BBC video clip. When BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones asked Lazaridis if its security issues in those countries had been resolved, Lazaridis apparently took it as a trick question that implied that BlackBerry email services themselves have security problems. Lazaridis called the question “unfair” and declared the interview over.

As a member of the media, I know I walk a fine line criticizing Lazaridis for walking out in the middle of the interview. And since I don’t generally like to make assumptions about one’s motivations, I’m sure there’s probably an explanation (bad day, jet lag, the less than flattering reviews of the PlayBook tablet).

On the other hand, while Cellan-Jones could have phrased the question better (and he arguably had and missed a chance to salvage it), it's hard to believe that Lazaridis had no idea what the reporter was actually asking about, if only because it’s even harder to believe Lazaridis never expected that the topic might come up (not least because the Indian government’s deadline of March 31 for RIM to comply with its demands had come and gone with no apparent resolution).

I’m speculating, obviously. But the reason it’s worth blogging about this is because the question of RIM’s encryption difficulties with governments who want to spy on email is not only a legitimate issue, but also one that has ramifications not only on RIM’s customers, but anyone offering similar services. Microsoft, Skype and Google are also currently negotiating with the Indian government regarding intercept of mobile email and messaging.

And now Nokia is the latest company to run into trouble in India – the Ministry of Home Affairs has reportedly ordered cellcos to block Nokia's new offerings, particularly its proposed pushmail/powermail service, until monitoring facilities are installed – and that’s despite an agreement in December in which Nokia set up a local server to help authorities monitor email and provide real time interception.

As Rethink Research’s Caroline Gabriel points out, Nokia has far more to lose than RIM:

While RIM is mainly risking the loss of future business, as 3G starts to take off in India, Nokia already makes substantial business from corporate and consumer email services, and has specifically created an offering for those without PCs, as part of its LifeTools family of apps for emerging markets.

Whether RIM likes it or not, the company is at the leading edge of this discussion. Lazaridis is right to say that BlackBerry’s email is secure, but that’s also the heart of its problems with certain government agencies. And whatever compromises (if any) RIM agrees to will set the benchmark for everyone else in that market.

It’s not an enviable position. But it’s a serious issue, and Lazaridis – whatever his intentions – didn’t do himself or RIM any favors by walking away from a question on an important topic on the pretense that asking about it is an unfair criticism of BlackBerry’s security capabilities.

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