Hello! I’m Samantha Stocks.

I’m a writer based in Bristol, UK.

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Who Should Be in Control of Phone Networks?

Who should be in control of phone networks? Should it be governments? Should it be the network providers themselves? How can we ensure that these services work for the benefit of nations?

We’ve seen governments using mobile network providers to benefit their own agendas in Egypt, Iran, and China amongst others. Well, it seems like a good idea: if there are a group of people creating trouble for your regime and you are trying to take control of a dangerous situation – where people are communicating and spreading messages designed to cause dissidence constituting a threat to national security – surely the logical thing to do would be to monitor the messages being spread to supporters and potentially block them altogether? Perhaps even send a few messages out there yourself?

Vodafone in Egypt: A New Age of Propaganda?

During the uprising in Egypt, Vodafone was one of a number of companies to shut down its mobile and internet networks as instructed by the Mubarak regime. The authorities then ordered them to switch the network back on so that the regime could send out messages. The messages were of a political nature and endorsed President Mubarak and his regime. Vodafone later described the messages as ‘unacceptable’. Is this one of the first examples we’ve seen of ‘mobile propaganda’?

Nokia Siemens Networks in Iran: Does Lawful Interception Mean Trouble for Oppressed Citizens?

In perhaps a more controversial case, Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) supplied Irantelecom with a monitoring centre, which is a server that would enable ‘lawful intercept functionality’. This is a technical term that essentially means that law enforcement organisations would be able to tap phones, read emails and survey electronic data on communications networks. This could spell serious trouble for repressed citizens.

Ben Roome from NSN has stated, ‘We provide these systems to be used under the applicable laws in their countries and make sure we are abiding by U.N. and [European Union] export regulations and code of conduct. We provided the monitoring centre to Irantelecom. We are not going to comment on the use of it. It is there to record lawful intercepts.’

Lawful intercepts? What exactly does that mean? The term is described by Cisco Systems as:

…the process by which law enforcement agencies conduct electronic surveillance of circuit and packet-mode communications as authorized by judicial or administrative order. Countries throughout the world have adopted legislatives and regulatory requirements for providers of public and private communication services (service providers) to design and implement their networks to support authorized electronic surveillance explicitly. International standards organizations have also developed standards to guide service providers and manufacturers in specific lawful intercept capabilities.

This could help with the investigation and prevention of serious crimes, which can’t be a bad thing… But it also has the potential to be used as a tool, repressive in nature, for limiting personal freedoms and threatening freedom of speech as a human right, especially in countries such as Iran.

Commenting on the monitoring centre supplied to Irantelecom by NSN, Hadi Ghaemi, spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, says, ‘This is an absolute threat to the privacy of all Iranian activists. It puts them in danger of being constantly monitored by the intelligence services, something that we know is already happening.’

Apparently, similar actions are also taking place in China, with the case of Cisco Systems in China being another example. The company sold technology to the Chinese government to enable it to monitor its citizens via the web in something that has become referred to as ‘The Great Firewall of China’. The company itself came under fire for its actions in this country.

National Security v.s. Freedom of Speech

In the wake of the riots in the UK, David Cameron has warned Research in Motion (RIM) – creator of the mobile device BlackBerry – that they need to take more responsibility for content on their networks. He also spoke in favour of monitoring social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Some would agree with him, but others believe it constitutes a threat to free speech.

Mike Conradi, a specialist technology and communications lawyer, is one such person, ‘Parliament would have to pass new legislation and I would warn against that. That gets the balance wrong in terms of free speech and security. It would certainly put the UK in a difficult position in terms of talking to authoritarian regimes and trying to convince them not to turn off their networks.’

Shadow culture secretary Ivan Lewis responded on this view by arguing, ‘Free speech is central to our democracy but so is public safety and security.’

Well, you can’t argue with him. He’s right. But it still seems like too much of a grey area to me.

I’m of the opinion that where there constitutes a genuine threat to civilians, ‘lawful interception’ should take place. In the case of the recent UK riots, carefully monitoring social platforms such as Twitter would (and did) prevent coordinated attacks, and having further control over BlackBerry Messenger would also have greatly helped.

But often it is the citizens themselves that may present a threat to the government or regime in power, in which case, you could argue that the citizens themselves constitute a threat to national security. But does further monitoring and control over networks threaten freedom of speech? Should we leave this up to the network providers to decide?