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 eight years ago as the 3G revolution, literally, starts to pick up speed.

The arrival of 3G and the increased availability of smartphones meant faster connections to the internet were becoming available. Faster connections meant more things started to become possible on handheld devices. Downloading a game or an image no longer took forever or cost a fortune. 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 containing legal adult pornography, or selling or promoting things like gambling, alcohol, tobacco and so on.  The networks said this list would be applied immediately by default to every Pay As You Go mobile phone account. Pay As You Go is overwhelmingly what children and young people use.  Eventually the list would also be 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 then 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.

The fact that the mobile networks were engaging in blocking illegal child abuse images is  referred to in the Code, in section 3. 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,  going into and coming 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.

In effect RIM constructed or became an encrypted portal or something analogous to a portal. Everything had to go through their, proprietary 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 themselves in relation to customers who used BlackBerry devices. They all had to look to BlackBerry to resolve it.

Why is BlackBerry so important? Not hard to work that one out. Their handsets have a substantial share of the UK market. There are around 8,000,000 in use today in the UK. That’s over one-fifth of all smartphones.

In addition we know from various research reports that BlackBerry handsets are hugely popular with kids, not least because of the completely free BlackBerry Messenger service which they provide. As a result, what happens with and on these devices is unusually important for online child safety.

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.

The position presented in the OFCOM report became the orthodoxy.


A few months ago I got a phone call from a journalist on a Sunday newspaper telling me he had heard that BlackBerry had abandoned or were about to abandon their practice of filtering child pornography sites and adult content for all of the UK’s mobile phone networks.  It was either going to be abandoned or they were going to charge for it. 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 but nothing had actually changed. I was assured that the status quo was still in place.

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 Ministers from the Home Office and Education, with the occasional presence of the Minister at DCMS with lead responsibility for the internet.

I met face to face with BlackBerry in July. I was again 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 immediate plans to change anything in that department although there might be discussions going on about improvements . However, there was no question of anything being turned off without something being there to replace it and they 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?

What was going on?

The truth appears to be that there had been some discussions between RIM and the networks about a number of things. This is probably what sparked the rumours that reached the journalist’s ears but, as BlackBerry had told me when I met them face to face, there never was a serious suggestion that anything would be turned off ahead of RIM coming up with an alternative which could be slotted in. There would be no hiatus.

However, what I then learned was the plain and shocking fact that filtering for illegal (IWF) content and adult content had never been turned on to begin with for any network except T Mobile.

Thus when RIM and the networks had told me that the status quo was unchanged and unchanging they were speaking the literal truth. But they also knew what I, along with others, understood the status quo to be was most definitely not the actualité.

T Mobile accounts for only 700,000 of the 8,000,000 BlackBerry handsets in use in the UK. That means  potentially up to 7,300,000 BlackBerry users have no protection, although the number  is likely to be significantly less than that because many companies or organizations that issue BlackBerry devices to their staff will have their own security policies in place which may cover the IWF list and other classes of content. Unsurprisingly, however, very few children or young people would come under this heading. They don’t use handsets which work via corporate servers. Children and young people are overwhelmingly in the consumer space.

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. A lot of people have been fooled for a lot of the time.

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 issues right also merits the kind of high priority top management attention it obviously has not been receiving.

As we have seen, BlackBerry did have a solution available which could screen out both IWF content and adult content. T Mobile used it. Why didn’t anyone else? Why did all of the networks apart from T Mobile carry on selling these  handsets even when they knew that both the IWF filter and the adult content filter were not working?  Responsibility cannot be laid solely at the doorstep of RIM. RIM and all of the networks, including T Mobile, maintained a collective silence. Professional solidarity misplaced until 3 decided to break ranks.

There is nothing in the Code which even hints at the possibility that there may be parts of their systems which, in effect, are outside their control or sections of it where they have had to sub contract their responsibilities for child safety to third parties.  I can think of several large children’s organizations that issue BlackBerry devices to their staff who are going to be less than pleased with this news.

If you go to some of the network operators’ web sites you can now find, buried away in the small print, references to the special position of BlackBerry. I do not know when these caveats first went on to the sites but they are the opposite of prominent.

Except on T Mobile’s site there should be warnings in the virtual equivalent of eight foot high neon lights on the pages advertising the handsets and right next to the point of sale.  On every site except T Mobile’s there ought to be a tag line saying something like

Warning: if you are interested in or are about to buy a BlackBerry handset, before you click to complete the transaction, you should know or be reminded that there is no filtering on this handset which can block access to illegal child pornographic content or legal but adult content. You therefore might want to think twice, particularly if you were considering buying this handset for a child. If you purchase a phone made by any other manufacturer this problem will not arise.

There is nothing like this either on the networks’ web sites or in any of the High Street shops that sell the phones. Moreover if you look at various publications which different networks and RIM have put out again you will be hard pressed to find any reference to the issues mentioned here.

Of course it remains the case that the UK’s mobile phone networks have a fantastic record overall. This problem only exists with BlackBerry devices. But that simply serves to underline the sheer incomprehensibility of what has been exposed in this blog. I appreciate that the networks all wanted to sell the very popular BlackBerry devices but in their rush to do so they seem to have left some pretty important stones unturned.

BlackBerry has some explaining to do. But in that respect they are not alone. So do the mobile phone networks. The IWF and OFCOM will no doubt also want to reflect on their part in this sorry tale.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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