All Commentary
Tuesday, January 27, 2015

BlackBerry’s Bully

The latest in tech cronyism is a twist on net neutrality

Thriving tech companies may feel threatened by proposed net neutrality legislation, but the CEO of one ailing high-tech has-been thinks that the regulation-in-waiting may be his beleaguered company’s salvation.

Net neutrality — the contentious idea that government intervention is required for consumers to access Internet content quickly and easily — is absurd to anyone who understands innovation, but BlackBerry CEO John Chun is already suggesting ways to expand the idea to give his company a leg up against its competitors.

Chun is requesting the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) consider a notion he calls “application/content neutrality.”

His complaint is that a decade of dwindling market share has left BlackBerry users standing in the cold as they watch vibrant app development on Apple’s and Google’s competing mobile platforms. Their market success makes it difficult for BlackBerry users to instant message with iPhone users, who mostly use Apple’s iMessage service to send secure texts and media. Chun further cites Netflix, which has yet to identify BlackBerry as a productive platform for which to develop a mobile app for its users to stream videos.

Chun is requesting the government’s extraordinary assistance in reinventing BlackBerry as a competitive 21st-century high-tech services company. This request goes beyond the typical subsidy or tax break. Were the FCC to adopt Chun’s new “application/content neutrality” concept, Apple and Netflix would be compelled to develop apps for BlackBerry devices, regardless of potential profitability.

In essence, Chun is asking the government to mandate that firms such as Apple spend valuable human resources and cash to make it easier for BlackBerry to poach competitors’ customers, breathing unearned life into a company that has failed for years to offer customers a compelling reason to favor its products. Not only would “application/content neutrality” be a gross overreach of government power, but it would also mean fewer resources devoted to products and services consumers actually want.

As Nobel Prize–winning economist Milton Friedman said, perhaps the biggest enemy of the free market system is the businessman who seizes on any opportunity to use government power to advance his own interests at others’ expense. Despite not even being law, net neutrality is already proving to be a typical opportunity for influential companies to capture the regulatory process for their own aims.

At least one part of Chun’s letter makes complete sense. In his preamble, the CEO notes that despite losing practically every other customer, many of the world’s government and military leaders still use BlackBerries.

Make no mistake for whom BlackBerry’s CEO is advertising: the rich and powerful in the halls of government, not typical mobile consumers who want innovative technologies that allow them to connect faster and better with their friends and colleagues.

The last thing we need is more Capitol Hill staffers watching Netflix’s House of Cards on their work phones.

If Chun truly wants to revitalize his company for the long run, he should earn consumers’ confidence, imagination, and business without employing the clumsy and morally dubious hand of government. And if, as Chun writes, “we truly want a free, open, and non-discriminatory Internet,” the finest thing the FCC could do is ignore boneheaded, Orwellian notions such as “application/content neutrality” and allow companies to discover new and exciting ways to serve people better.

  • Richard N. Lorenc is Chief Growth Officer of Iron Light, an award-winning strategic marketing firm specializing in helping purpose-driven brands change the world. He served at FEE from April 2013-November 2021, most recently as FEE's Executive Vice President.