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Feds Fear BlackBerry Suit

Sometimes, we don’t realize how much we depend on our portable digital devices until someone tries to take them away.
November 14, 2005

Last week, TR’s Paul Angiolillo wrote about the withdrawal users of the RIM BlackBerry might have to go through if a pending injunction requiring RIM to stop selling the devices and shut down its network in the United States is finally issued. The Associated Press reports today that employees of the Federal government are among the biggest BlackBerry addicts – and that they’re not happy about the prospect of having to look for a new fix.

The Department of Justice, according to the AP report, sent a “statement of interest” to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, where Judge James Spencer may soon decide whether to enforce an injunction against RIM sought by NTP Ltd. NTP recently won a patent-infringement lawsuit against the company, and in October the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear RIM’s appeal.

The statement claims that up to 200,000 federal employees depend on their BlackBerrys to communicate with one another. If the injunction goes forward, “It is imperative that some mechanism be incorporated that permits continuity of the federal government’s use of BlackBerry devices,” the Justice Department insists. NTP has already said it won’t take away Federal employees’ BlackBerrys, but DoJ officials question whether it’s feasible to shut down BlackBerry e-mail service for consumers and not for Federal employees.

If the Feds do get their exemption and the BlackBerry network goes dark for everyone else, it will bring some interesting social questions to the fore. Why are Federal employees more dependent on portable phone/e-mail/paging devices than anyone else? Is that a good thing? Are all of those 200,000 people more crucial to the nation’s functioning than the millions of business users whose work actually drives the economy? At what point does a system like the BlackBerry network so saturate daily life that it becomes a utility – one that should come with the same access guarantees as the landline phone network?

One hopes, of course, that NTP and RIM will find a way to settle their dispute that doesn’t harm any BlackBerry owners. But given the virulence of the current plague of patent-infringement suits, that seems unlikely. It may be time for Crackberry users to think about switching to Palm’s Treo – or, like the Justice Department, to make their voices heard in eastern Virginia.

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