BlackBerry dips toe into Net Neutrality fight, pushes for app and content regulation

John Chen BlackBerry CEO

John Chen is nothing if not didactic. Every time he goes up on stage, I feel like I’m listening to my 12th grade economics professor all over again. But he’s funny and charming and, often, darn convincing.

But this time he’s swung a little bit to the strange side.

In a blog post that mirrors a note he sent to various US senators, Chen talks about how he — and therefore BlackBerry as a company — does not support the road to Net Neutrality through Title II, which would see the FCC re-classify telcos companies like Verizon and Comcast as “telecommunications companies,” obligating them to keep customers’ interests at the fore. Like other public utilities regulated under Title II, companies would be forced to treat all data equally, preventing so-called “fast lanes” that could see customers paying more to access certain websites, or to avoid being throttled during peak times.

(Here’s a great article by GigaOm’s Jeff John Roberts on the subject.)

Instead, Chen wants to see the FCC utilize the “C Block rules,” which would instead force wireless carriers to ensure their devices are not locked to one network, nor blocked from changing certain user-facing settings, such as which apps can be installed.

But Chen did advocate for application neutrality, saying that because we rely on certain services every day, companies shouldn’t be allowed to silo them to specific ecosystems or platforms. Citing the new BlackBerry as “a full-service, device-agnostic provider of highly secure and productive software and services,” he goes on to say that part of the company’s recovery has been a “a strategy of application and content neutrality.”

Referring to BBM’s new cross-platform roots, and BES12’s support for iOS, Android and Windows Phone, he posits that companies like Apple, which facilitates billions of iMessages every month, shouldn’t be allowed to silo those popular services to a single ecosystem. “Unfortunately, not all content and applications providers have embraced openness and neutrality. Unlike BlackBerry, which allows iPhone users to download and use our BBM service, Apple does not allow BlackBerry or Android users to download Apple’s iMessage messaging service. Netflix, which has forcefully advocated for carrier neutrality, has discriminated against BlackBerry customers by refusing to make its streaming movie service available to them,” he wrote.

“Many other applications providers similarly offer service only to iPhone and Android users. This dynamic has created a two-tiered wireless broadband ecosystem, in which iPhone and Android users are able to access far more content and applications than customers using devices running other operating systems. These are precisely the sort of discriminatory practices that neutrality advocates have criticized at the carrier level.

Therefore, neutrality must be mandated at the application and content layer if we truly want a free, open and non-discriminatory internet. All wireless broadband customers must have the ability to access any lawful applications and content they choose, and applications/content providers must be prohibited from discriminating based on the customer’s mobile operating system.”

The problem with this line of thinking is that in cases like iMessage, the platform and service are inextricably linked. While there have been (largely unfounded) rumours that iMessage will one day come to Android, Apple is not looking to expand the reach of iMessage, but is using it as a way to sell more iPhones.

Similarly, Netflix is available on nearly every screen imaginable, from smart TVs to consoles to smartphones, tablets and everything in between. That it is not available for BlackBerry is because BlackBerry failed to attract the necessary user base Netflix deemed an appropriate number for investment. Or, if one would argue that there are fewer smart TVs than BlackBerry 10 devices out there (debatable, but let’s go with it), BlackBerry’s own argument as an enterprise software company alienated itself from many consumer-facing companies.

In other words, ecosystems are not passive, but attract the kinds of services its users demand. Wireless carriers don’t get to decide what I do over their airwaves because their purpose is to facilitate traffic, not incentivize a particular platform. Should Rogers be forced to offer Windows Phone or Tizen because Android and iOS are together too dominant? No? Then why should Apple be forced to offer its services on Android or Windows Phone, or Netflix its content on BlackBerry?