Go free chat! Disruptive services outrun Big Brother

When autocrats try to control a new communications medium, you know that medium is good for society

The news this week that Vietnam is thinking about regulating free chat services like Whatsapp and Line, and perhaps banning them, may seem like yet another Big Brother government oppressing its people -- which is true. But these free chat services also pose a threat to purported democracies like the United Kingdom and United States, both of which have been caught broadly spying on their citizens and, in the United Kingdom, harrassing the family of a reporter covering the Edward Snowden leaks. They threaten the big telcos, as well, both the private enterprises in more economically liberal countries and the state properties in more controlled economies.

It's an odd situation: Companies banking on free services to attract millions of customers in hopes of making money on them through an as-yet-to-be-deternined method -- the basic dot-com business model -- are, in the process, threatening both governments and old-line telcos.

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Governments are threatened because traffic taking place on nontraditional communications platforms can be harder to monitor; if it wants to spy on its citizens or block their speech, the government has to work harder to do so. Meanwhile, the telcos face an economic threat: If you're using WeChat, Whatsapp, Line, Viber, iMessage, or the like, you're not paying the carriers' obscene SMS charges, and that's real money. Carriers are very threatened, and a whole industry exists to advise them on getting that money back by blocking, taking over, or emulating the private chat providers (called OTT, or over-the-top, providers in telco parlance).

Ironically, in autocratic countries, the two threats come together, which is why Vietnam is nervous and why Saudi Arabia recently banned Viber: Their state-controlled telcos are losing money, and it's harder for them to monitor or block communication over the network.

The core notion of the consumerization phenomenon is self-empowerment. As technology gets democratized, the old-guard monopolies and oligarchies -- like the traditional telcos and the Big Brother apparatus in goverments everywhere -- are threatened. But they also adjust. We tend to forget that much of Silicon Valley's foundational innovation was funded directly or indirectly by the U.S. Defense Dept., and there's been a cozy relationship all along.

The Web companies may act as if they're surprised the NSA is accessing their servers, but such access has been routine forever. The telcos likewise are government proxies when asked. When you read their denials of providing backdoor access, they all say they cooperate with lawful requests -- and as the people who make the requests set the laws, that means they provide what they are asked, even if the legislators don't know it and as the Snowden revelations show so clearly.

All of this is why what may appear as a David-and-Goliath story of tech pioneers outmaneuvering the big but stodgy establishment is not so simple. The chat providers need to make money, and that will lead them to the same calculations as any other communications business: cooperate with the government to maintain access to the networks they rely on.

But their existence complicates the control desired by old-guard telcos and Big Brother governments, so they should be encouraged. Even if governments manage to corral them, there's a period in which these services are less controlled than the traditional ones, and thus a venue for freer communications (from a political point of view). We saw that in Arab Spring uprisings and in Iran's wave of protests some years ago: Twitter and other social media provided a conduit for communications at a critical time, even if the governments were at some point able to block them.

This may feel all 1960s-radical, and it is in a sense. Work around The Man using the new technologies as they become available, and keep the corporate oligarchs and spy agencies off guard when possible. Just be clear that these technologies are likely to become part of the establishment at some point. It's just what happens.

This article, "Go free chat! Disruptive services outrun Big Brother," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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