One Door Opens, Another Closes
By Carlo Longino, Tue Jan 04 01:30:00 GMT 2005

Just as Saudi Arabia lifts a ban on cameraphones, it says it will punish people that use 3G for "immoral" purposes, highlighting a challenge new technologies bring to operators in many countries, repressive or not.


The black market for cameraphones in Saudi Arabia has disappeared, soon after the government there reversed a ban on the import and sale of the devices. The ban was put into place to assuage fears that men would use the devices to improperly take pictures of women in the country, but it would appear the success of the black market is getting the phones into users' hands has helped to see it lifted.

But while the Saudi government looks to have bowed to the inevitable, it's also told the recipent of the country's first 3G license that it will punish anyone that uses the network for immoral purposes. The Internet is already tightly controlled in the country, and authorities are concerned about the use of the mobile Net to deliver pornography and other banned content to 3G handsets.

It's easy to dismiss Saudi Arabia as a repressive country that's bringing problems upon itself by morally policing its citizens, but plenty of countries, or more specifically, their mobile operators, are struggling with how to balance their legal or moral responsibility (and the associated costs and headaches) to restrict access to certain types of content with their predictions that mobile porn and the like will be a major money-spinner.

The challenge for operators is a pretty stark one: figure out that balance on their own, or risk governments taking the choice out of their hands completely. The governments of Israel and Australia will soon both require operators to block access to anyone that hasn't proven their age, and there's not likely to be much interest in adult content that comes through official, carrier-sanctioned channels, anyway when users have to go into a shop and say "Hi, I'd like to get approved to watch porn, please."

In India, where transmitting or selling pornography is illegal, a schoolboy has landed in hot water by sending out an MMS of himself and a 16-year-old girl engaging in a sexual act. The head of eBay's Indian unit has also been arrested, since someone attempted to sell the video on the site, and the furor has lead to other schools in the country contemplating banning mobile phones to prevent other incidents. The other upshot of the controversy is that it's raised awareness of the mobile phone as a viable porn platform, and increased sales in India's underground porn markets of videos tailored for mobile devices.

The porn problem for carriers falls into a bigger pattern of headaches. It's easy, on one hand, to complain about walled gardens, but if carriers don't do anything to protect users from various maladies be it kids accessing porn, people using new services to harass others or even just spam and viruses they face a backlash from angry consumers, or worse, angry governments. That's not to say operators must choose one or the other, a walled garden and no problems, or open access and lots of problems, but there is a balance to be struck, and the answer lies more in limiting access for those users that need it, rather than cutting off all users from anything that's not been approved by the carrier.