Sunday, August 15, 2010

It’s Good to Be Banned: Blackballing Benefits the BlackBerry Brand

As hard as it is these days to successfully steer your brand, there’s a churning marketplace, the shifting tides of policy, and myriad other dynamics standing ready to increase the level of anxiety in orders of magnitude.

Unless your prescience is so honed you can predict when the next leak will sprout, you’re guaranteed to finish patching the final hole only to discover a new one on the other side of the raft. (And if you are a soothsayer, by all means do yourself a favor and go pick the lottery instead. Fewer gray hairs, ulcers, and late expense checks.)

So imagine Research in Motion’s surprise to find its BlackBerry, long the standard of workforce communication, faced with the ban of its flagship product in a number of countries over security concerns.

So let’s get this straight: you spend decades and billions in R&D to create an incredibly useful, reliable tool that’s become indispensible to millions of customers the world over — so much so that its name has become the Coke/Xerox/Kleenex of its industry. Your update cycles are dizzying. Your brand is respected and respectful. You’re the innovation darling of your home nation, Canada, and many others. You raise productivity and expectations wherever you go. You’ve become a verb.

And then you’re singled out as a serious threat to foreign governments for your efforts.

Recently India, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates — the governments of whom are all allies of both the U.S. and Canada, which further tangles this complex and sensitive issue — have made headlines for waging war on the “absolute privacy” enjoyed by its users and which has been so instrumental to achieving its leadership status.

You may have only now become familiar with this story, but the war on encrypted communications has been going on for years in the above-mentioned nations as well as China and Iran, two authoritarian states which are more or less dictatorships when it comes to civil liberties (and who are not, coincidentally, U.S./Canada allies).

The OpenVPN service employed by BlackBerry and many other providers encrypts data sent from computers (i.e., smartphones) to servers outside the territorial jurisdictions of those and most other countries. These connections can be bored through any firewall or proxy, transferring data in unbreakable, NSA military grade-level encryption. In fact, OpenVPN is so stealthy it can’t be detected by most known sniffer technologies or traced back to the sender. You can just imagine the chills these facts send down the spines of governments in the world’s least stable region. “Anyone can carry out an evil plot using your technology right under our noses,” they hyperventilate, “and that, plus your wayward concept of ‘privacy,’ are the only things standing in our way to stopping it.”

So they want access to any and all data transferred from within their borders to foreign servers. And that means an end to digital privacy for citizens and visitors alike. It’s known that VPN subscribers from these countries use the technology not just to bypass restricted sites such as adult content and gambling, but to read news and visit social networking sites, mundane activities which seem harmless to us but are just as prohibited as pornography and sports-betting under those regimes.

More than just a national security hot-button, many of the world’s 150-or-so VPN providers say that over half of their subscribers are located in UAE, Saudi Arabia, and China. In one fell swoop, ending digital privacy becomes an attack on both individual rights and big tech; once data integrity is compromised, watch the exodus commence.

Throughout the world, large institutions like banks, hospitals, and yes, law enforcement and the military rely on VPNs to protect vital information from unauthorized access for a variety of legitimate reasons. Count those cans of worms open too.

“If you were to ban strong encryption, you would shut down corporations, business, commerce, banking, and the Internet,” Research In Motion founder and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis recently told the New York Times. “Effectively, you’d shut it all down. That’s not likely going to happen.”

The governments of those nations claim they aren’t really concerned with corporate customers though, because terrorism by and large doesn’t spring from inside corporate email systems (whose data records can be subpoenaed if they’re ever needed anyway). No, it’s the consumer product-flavored BlackBerry they’re after. The VPN activities of people who mean well (tourists and small-business personnel, for instance) and the ones who mean harm aren’t subpoenable; to make it harder, those responsible for acts good and bad are long gone before their legacies become apparent. In a region like the Middle East, it’s easy to understand all the concern.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say that R.I.M. capitulates and agrees to offer these federal governments access to its subscribers’ data. Is it realistic — or even possible — to believe they’ll be able to track the one bad needle in millions of benign haystacks quickly enough to do anything about it? No, it’s not. Sure, there’s security “trending” software which helps extrapolate activity patterns, but that’s in its infancy and certainly not even close to dependable on such a massive scale with consequences this dire.

So that means it’s open-season on individual rights, there for the claiming for any government, authoritarian or not, who shows up on R.I.M.’s doorstep with a search warrant scrawled on a napkin or backside of a reed. Because you know damn well if R.I.M. opens up to India, they have to welcome all comers or suffer a major credibility hit for preferential treatment.

So after all that, all the technology talk and geo-politics gobbledygook, the threats and promises, the fear and the press statements, this is an all-or-nothing proposition.

And that’s why this may well turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to the BlackBerry brand.

It is rare indeed for a brand to have the embodiment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness fall into its lap in front of the entire planet. What an opportunity.

What hasn’t made many, if any, headlines are Google’s Gmail and Luxembourg-based Skype, who have also been invited in front of Indian security officials over the same concerns. Of course, Google’s experienced its own similar friction these past few years between its search platform and Chinese censorship, so they’re kind of old news in this arena. Then there’s Skype, which is too small and still esoteric for much of the digital world. That leaves BlackBerry to carry the flag of freedom.

BlackBerry ranked #63 in Interbrand’s Best Global Brands List 2009, and I’ll bet you a ten-spot (not much for you, but an open wager on the web could put me out a few grand) that by this time next year these Canadians will have cracked the top 40 — and probably even higher — which would represent an herculean leap by any standard. But only if they stay true to their mission and hold the steering wheel straight and steady.

“We’re not going to compromise that,” Lazaridis said about allowing governments to monitor messages across its network. “That’s what’s made BlackBerry the No. 1 solution worldwide.”

If he, his people, his product, and his brand keep that promise, getting banned for upholding customer privacy will bestow upon them a crown of righteousness we haven’t seen since Ford Motor Company helped win World War II with its Sherman Tank.

That’s anything but an overstatement. Amidst the ongoing crisis between the West (namely the U.S., true to form) and the Middle East — and its requisite battle of ideologies — we’re about to witness the triumph of capitalism over fear. If the countries named above block BlackBerry from inside its borders, it’ll sting their bottom line and market cap, but only temporarily. After its apologies to shareholders have been accepted and dominance has resumed, the company will stand at the rarely visited crossroads of capitalism and idealism.

If they stay true to their word, they cannot lose. BlackBerry shall inherit the win.