NDN Blog

Question for the Week

Two quotes, and a question that, I think, naturally follows:

First, this is an excerpt from the piece President Obama published in the latest issue of Newsweek. In the piece, he explains why Haiti matters to America and Americans, and explains why we-- as individuals and as a nation-- must act to aid the people of Haiti:

But above all, we act for a very simple reason: in times of tragedy, the United States of America steps forward and helps. That is who we are. That is what we do. For decades, America's leadership has been founded in part on the fact that we do not use our power to subjugate others, we use it to lift them up—whether it was rebuilding our former adversaries after World War II, dropping food and water to the people of Berlin, or helping the people of Bosnia and Kosovo rebuild their lives and their nations.

With this language, Obama comes closer to enunciating a true liberal worldview than he has previously.  I think he means it, I think he believes it, and I think that as the Obama Doctrine becomes increasingly clear, it will be formed around the arguments he makes here.

Second, this is a tweet, translated from Chinese, that has circulated widely among Chinese Twitterers:

The sin of Facebook is that it helps people know who they wanna know. The sin of Twitter is that it allows people to say what they wanna say. The sin of Google is that it lets people find what they wanna find, and Youtube let us see what we wanna see. So, they are all kicked away.

President Obama is writing about helping the victims of a natural disaster, which is something we can and should and will do. But his language here-- about using American power to lift people up-- has much deeper implications. In the world we live in today, unfettered access to the internet is all but a natural right. As this Tweet makes clear, it is how we know, say, find, and see what we want. And if it is our goal to lift up individuals, ensuring access to the internet has to be a crucial part of that goal.

So, the question: Given what has happened with Google and China-- with increasingly stringent censorship and revelations of a vast global espionage campaign-- is it even possible for the U.S. and American companies to carry on business-as-usual with Beijing?

This Thursday, when Secretary of State Clinton delivers a "major address" on internet freedom, I think we'll hear a response to this question. If the Obama Administration is serious about the liberal values it has enunciated, that response can't be a positive one.

Reflections on 21st Century Statecraft

In recent months, Secretary Hillary Clinton's State Department has been undertaking a series of actions under the heading of State's new "21st Century Statecraft" initiative. In brief, 21st century statecraft is a strategy of expanding diplomacy beyond traditional government-to-government relationships and including everyday people around the world in the business of international affairs-- often through the use of mobile and web-based technologies including social networking, online video, blogging, and SMS.

To help explain and better understand what, exactly, 21st century statecraft is, and to provide what I hope will be a useful reference, I've compiled below the initiatives of the Obama Administration that fall under this heading:

  • Nowruz Video - In March, President Obama released a video on YouTube in which he spoke directly to the people and leaders of Iran on Nowruz, the holiday marking the Iranian New Year. His address acknowledged the troubled history of the U.S.-Iran relationship, and welcomed "new beginnings" with Iran. The video has been viewed over 100,000 times, and was well-received in Iran.
  • Swat Text - After Taliban forces took over Pakistan's Swat Valley in May, the U.S. committed $100 million in humanitarian support to aid refugees. But they didn't stop there-Secretary Clinton encouraged regular citizens take part in the relief effort; by texting "swat" to the shortcode 20222 from any mobile phone, any American could automatically donate $5 to the UN Refugee Agency.
  • Virtual Student Foreign Service - In her speech at New York University's graduation ceremonies in May, Secretary Clinton announced a new initiative that connects American college students with American embassies overseas, and empowers those students to act as diplomats by engaging directly with citizens of foreign countries.
  • Cairo Speech - Shortly after Secretary Clinton unveiled the 21st Century Statecraft initiative in late May, President Obama gave a much-anticipated speech in Cairo on the relationship between the U.S. and Muslim people (not governments) around the world.
  • Twitter in Iran - The world watched rapt in June as thousands of Iranians marched in opposition to their government, which had just baldly and boldly stolen a hotly contested election. With no control over traditional media outlets, Iranian people took to Twitter to broadcast-in words, pictures, and videos-the power of the uprising and the violence of the government's suppression. With Twitter scheduled to go down for maintenance in the midst of the uprising, the State Department intervened in support of the freedom of information, as Jared Cohen, who works with Alec Ross at State, contacted Jack Dorsey at Twitter, and urged them to keep Twitter online so as not to silence the protesters in Iran. The Twitter executives obliged, and Twitter was taken offline for maintenance in the early morning hours in Iran, rather than during the mid-afternoon.
  • Congo - Alec Ross visited the eastern Congo in September, the site of one of the longest, deadliest conflicts in the modern era. He returned with ideas for two new initiatives. The first was high-tech: a mobile banking system, to allow the government and international agencies to pay their soldiers, without depending on unreliable cash deliveries through the jungle. The second was low-tech: The State Department would help put ex-combatants on the radio to use their credible voices to speak directly to the militia members and encourage them to demobilize.
  • Cuba -The means of the Obama Administration's new engagement with Cuba employs some of the tenets of 21st century statecraft-- easing remittances and travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans permits people-to-people dialogue. Additionally, relaxing sanctions on telecommunications with Cuba by allowing undersea cables and permitting cell phone carriers to do business in Cuba will empower individuals with information and communications technologies.
  • Mexico Initiative - A new collaborative effort between the State Department, the Mexican government, a Mexican telecom firm, and Mexican non-profits will address one challenge of the drug violence in the border region-the inability of citizens to anonymously and securely tip off the police. The groups, in partnership, will establish a free SMS short-code, to which Mexican citizens will be able to anonymously text tips reporting on incidences of drug-related crime, which would be published to a public database and acted upon by local police.
  • Humari Awaz - Speaking in Islamabad in October, Secretary Clinton announced American support for a mobile-phone based social network in Pakistan. The network is called Humari Awaz, which means "our voice," and it is accessible via a free SMS shortcode on all five mobile networks. Pakistanis will be able to use these networks for purely social purposes, or to pursue business, media, agricultural, and other ends. The US government will pay for the first 24 million text messages sent through Humari Awaz. The program has met with unexpectedly quick success, with half of the free texts being used in the first few weeks.
  • Civil Society 2.0 - A short time later in Marrakesh, Secretary Clinton unveiled a new "Civil Society 2.0" initiative, in which the State Department will provide funding and expertise to allow grassroots civil society organizations around the world use technology to grow and work more effectively.
  • Shanghai Townhall - On his recent trip to China, President Obama held a townhall meeting in Shanghai, at which he addressed a group of students. While the event was not broadcast as widely as the U.S. government surely would have liked, the very act of an American president speaking directly to Chinese students, and addressing, if gently, the issue of online censorship in China is a disruptive and empowering intervention for young Chinese who have never had a government official ask them what they think.
  • Addressing Afghans - A portion of President Obama's December speech on Afghanistan was directed at Afghans themselves. Naturally, very few Afghans tuned in live on TV or on the internet (broadband penetration is around 2%), but the White House took advantage of the fact that about 30% of Afghans have mobile phones: They clipped out the 45 seconds of the speech in which he spoke to the Afghan people, and dubbed the video in Arabic, Pashto, and four other languages spoken in the region. The videos, which are available over mobile networks, have reached thousands who would not otherwise have heard Obama's words.
  • Texting Haiti - Just hours after an earthquake rocked Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the State Department had successfully coordinated with mGive, a mobile donations platform, to establish a shortcode so that all Americans could donate $10 by sending a single text message. Within days, a million people had sent the word "HAITI" to 90999, raising over $10 million for the Red Cross in their relief effort.

I'm greatly encouraged by the State Department's focus on this mode of engaging with the world. Since 2006, NDN and the New Policy Institute have been writing and speaking about the power of mobile technology to change our world. The application of this technology in pursuit of our foreign policy objectives is indicative of remarkable foreward thinking, and the fruit these initiatives have already borne are testament in themselves to the future potential of this kind of statecraft.

90999: How It Happened

In the past few days, over 800,000 Americans have collectively donated over $9 million to support the work of the Red Cross in Haiti with a simple text message of "HAITI" to shortcode 90999. There have been a number of similar shortcodes set up, but we at NDN have been promoting this one for two reasons: First, donations to this shortcode are entirely free of fees, so all of your $10 go to the Red Cross. Second, our friends at the State Department helped facilitate this particular effort, and have given it their imprimatur.

Remarkably, this shortcode was active just a few hours after the earthquake.  This came about through around-the-world coordination between our State Department, the mobile donations nonprofit mGive, and the major mobile carriers in the United States.  Fortunately, mGive already had a shortcode set up for $10 donations, and so when Alec Ross, Secretary Clinton's senior adviser on innovation, called James Eberhard, chairman of mGive, and roused him from his bed in Pakistan, mGive was able to quickly modify the code to accept donations for the Red Cross's work in Haiti. The mobile carriers also stepped up, waving all fees and charges on SMS messages sent to this code.

The tragedy in Haiti is on a truly devastating scale, but it has been heartening to see Americans step up in the way they have. To the extent that this collective action has been facilitated by mobile technology, we must again be thankful for the people and organizations who helped make it possible. Haiti will be in very bad shape for years to come, but hopefully early and sustained support from the American people will play a role in getting this devastated country back on its feet.

Texting Help to Haiti

Over the past day and a half, it's been difficult to comprehend the horror of what's happened in Haiti. Seeing photos and eyewitness reports flood in, I, like a lot of people, have wanted to do something to help.

One thing I have been able to do is contribute a little money to the Red Cross, which is undertaking a massive rescue and recovery effort in Port-au-Prince right now. Thanks to the hard and generous work on the part of folks at mGive, the Office of Innovation at the State Department, and certain wireless carriers, it's possible to make an easy $10 donation via your mobile phone.

If you text "Haiti" to the shortcode 90999, a $10 donation will immediately transfer to the Red Cross, and the charge will show up automatically on your monthly wireless bill. Again thanks to the people and organizations above, no fees will be applied, and 100% of the donation will go to support the people of Haiti.

I would encourage everyone who can spare the $10 to make a donation immediately.  We're in a narrow window in this rescue effort, and your money could help save someone's life. 48 hours from now, that might not be true.

To learn more about what's been happening in Haiti, and how else you can help, I'd encourage you to check out this page put together by our friends at MobileActive.  It's one of the more comprehensive efforts I've seen, with a particular focus on telecom issues following on the earthquake.

At NDN, our thoughts are with the victims and their families.

Google / China

Google, as you might have heard, threatened to pull out of China yesterday in the wake of cyberattacks that targeted the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.  From Google's release:

We have taken the unusual step of sharing information about these attacks with a broad audience not just because of the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech. In the last two decades, China's economic reform programs and its citizens' entrepreneurial flair have lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty. Indeed, this great nation is at the heart of much economic progress and development in the world today.

We launched Google.cn in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results. At the time we made clear that "we will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions on our services. If we determine that we are unable to achieve the objectives outlined we will not hesitate to reconsider our approach to China."

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered--combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web--have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

To be sure, we'll be watching this closely, so check back for updates.  In the meanwhile:

- Evgeny Morozov, the most cynical man on the internet, finds Google's motives highly dubious.

- Alec Ross, our friend at the State Department, is looking forward to Secretary Clinton's speech on web freedom next week.

- Digital Daily breaks down some of the business implications Google must have considered.

- Young Chinese netizens are leaving flowers at Google's offices in Beijing.

Content Bringing People to the Internet

I was over at the World Bank this afternoon, where they were co-hosting an event on "wired libraries" with IREX, a nonprofit working to strengthen education, independent media, and civil societies around the world. Much of the conversation centered around how governments and aid agencies should invest in extending broadband networks to libraries, which is a well-proven strategy to:

  • Enable access for underserved communities
  • Introduce people to the internet and build demand for service
  • Extend networks to areas that, without public support, would be money-losing investments

The e-rate program in the United States is one particularly successful public-private partnership that achieved these goals. If you're unfamiliar, E-Rate levies a small fee on telecom users, and then uses the receipts to connect public schools and libraries to broadband networks. Poland, Burundi, and Alberta, Canada have also seen successful public-private partnerships to expand broadband access.

Things got really interesting, however, when the discussion turned from services to content-- much more rarely discussed. Expanding broadband access to underserved areas is a good goal, but it's not worthwhile unless the people in those areas are able to access content that is valuable to them.

According to Paul-Andre Baran, who works for IREX wiring libraries in Romania, the first thing Romanians want from the internet is the ability to communicate, followed by access to information about educational and health care opportunities. Clearly, tools like Skype and Gmail are free and available, but who is providing information about scholarships for a student in Romania? Where can you find data about healthcare options if you live in Dorna Candrenilor?

I think there are two lessons here. First, we see that people will use broadband access as a tool for self-improvement-- whether by seeking out educational opportunities, or improving their healthcare, or some other way-- provided they have the ability to do so. This means they'll need access to a network, as well as access to the right content.  A wired library and a knowledgeable librarian are the first half of the battle, but if the content isn't available online, the story ends there. And the fact is, many kinds of content are expensive to produce, and so, naturally, content that caters to the needs of the poor is a relative rarity.

So, second, if an aid agency were seeking to facilitate development through use of ICT networks, investing in putting government services online is a crucial part of their work. It would be important to listen to the potential users, to find out what content they desire-- in different places, people will want different things-- but if the agency succeeded in putting the right content online, the users could take it from there.

Investment in expanding fiber and wireless networks brings the internet to the people, but content brings the people to the internet. As we've argued before, understanding how to use computers and the internet will be crucial for anyone to succeed in the 21st century, and every government and agency needs to make it a priority to prepare their people for this new world. Content, lest we forget, is half the battle.

Secretary Clinton on Development and Innovation

Secretary Hillary Clinton gave a major speech on global development policy yesterday, focusing particularly on how State, Defense, USAID, and other federal agencies can collaborate to improve our development work. She made a strong case for why development matters, and went on to lay out six efforts already underway to step our global game up.  I'll direct your attention to number five:

Fifth, we are increasing our nation's investment in innovation.

Hillary ClintonNew technologies are allowing billions of people to leapfrog into the 21st century after missing out on 20th-century breakthroughs. Farmers armed with cell phones can learn the latest local market prices and know in advance when a drought or flood is on its way. Mobile banking allows people in remote corners of the world to use their phones to access savings accounts or send remittances home to their families. Activists seeking to hold governments accountable for how they use resources and treat citizens use blogs and social networking sites to shine the spotlight of transparency on the scourges of corruption and repression.


This innovation tradition is even more critical today. And we are pursuing several ways to advance discovery and make sure useful innovations reach the people who need them. We are expanding our direct funding of new research. We're exploring venture funds, credit guarantees, and other tools to encourage private companies to develop and market products and services that improve the lives of the poor. We are seeking more innovative ways to use our considerable buying power -- for example, through advance market commitments -- to help create markets for those products, so entrepreneurs can be sure that breakthroughs made on behalf of the poor successfully reach them.


With help from the State Department, U.S. tech companies are working with the Mexican government, telecom companies, and NGOs to reduce narco-violence, so citizens can easily and anonymously report gang activity in their neighborhoods. We've brought three tech delegations to Iraq, including a recent visit by Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, who announced that his company will launch an Iraqi government YouTube channel to promote transparency and good governance. And we're sending a team of experts to the Democratic Republic of Congo this spring to begin the process of bringing mobile banking technology to that country.

It's really encouraging to hear the State Department-- an organization historically known for its preference for tradition over innovation-- putting these ideas forward. We at NDN, as you may know, have been talking about similar subjects for a long time; here, for your reference, since it's been a while, is a sampling of our major work:

“Twitter, Iran, and More: Impressions from the Front Lines of the Global Media Revolution”
7/15/09: with Nico Pitney, Eric Jaye, and Theo Yedinsky
This discussion brought together three individuals on the front lines of Twitter's use in domestic and global politics.

mHealth for Development
6/26/09: with Alec Ross, Tom Kalil, and Sen. Tim Wirth

NDN co-hosted the release of a paper published by the UN Foundation and the Vodaphone Foundation examining the potential for mobile technology to improve healthcare delivery in the developing world.

Douglas Alexander on Conflict, Fragility, and International Development
4/27/09: With Douglas Alexander
Douglas Alexander, the British Secretary of State for International Development, joined NDN for a frank discussion of the role of local politics in development in fragile states and conflict-affected areas.

Harnessing the Mobile Revolution
10/8/08: By Tom Kalil

Kalil analyzes the power of mobile to create economic growth, better public health, and stronger democracies in the developing world.

A Laptop in Every Backpack
05/01/07: By Alec Ross and Simon Rosenberg
Ross and Rosenberg argue that connectivity to the global information network has become an essential part of life in the 21st century, and call for a “A Laptop in Every Backpack” to prepare our children for this new world.

2010: The Year the Laptop Began to Die

SmartbooksAt the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, a new subspecies of device will be showing its feathers this year, the result of inter-breeding among laptops, netbooks, and smartphones.  It's called a "Smartbook," and it effectively amounts to a small netbook (QWERTY keyboard, laptop-style body), but with certain features of smartphones, including GPS, 3G connectivity, and all-day battery life. Sexy, right?

A storm of different technological developments is permitting the rapid transformation of the portable computer, and is pushing us toward a new sort of device-- probably something not unlike the smartbook-- that will make the laptop utterly obsolete within a few years.  By the end of this year, in fact, people will be swapping their laptops for smartbooks.

What are these technological developments? I thought you'd never ask. Aside from the steady improvement in hardware-- processor performance and miniaturization (thanks, Murphy's Law!), battery design, screen resolution, etc.-- I see two major shifts that are making the laptop irrelevant:

- First, the rollout of 4G networks will make mobile browsing nearly as speedy as connecting to the web via WiFi or a wired connection.  Sprint already has 4G running in a few cities, and by the end of 2010, all the other major American carriers should be selling devices that will run on their own 4G networks. Before you know it, the idea of a laptop that lacks mobile connectivity will be quaint and laughable.  Netbooks and smartbooks will reign supreme.

- Second, the evolution of cloud computing is allowing laptops to shed pounds, hard drive space, and, increasingly, all native applications except a browser.  Your smartbook of the future might not have more than 64 GB of solid-state memory (which is more durable and harder to break than a traditional drive), while all your documents, media and applications will live on a server way up in the clouds...

I think most people will still carry around a phone-- a separate device from their smartbook-- for some years; the essential pocket-sized portability of a mobile phone limits the device's effectiveness for typing and viewing media. But a few years from now, we'll all share a laugh about the days when we lugged around massive, un-networked laptops.

The Trouble with Repression in a Wireless World

IranThe British monthly Prospect has been playing host to an interesting back-and-forth between Clay Shirky, the author of "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations," and Evgeny Morozov, a Fellow at Georgetown and the blogger over at FP's Net Effect.

They've been going back and forth on the power of social media and mobile technology to support democratic movements in repressive states like Iran, Belarus, China, and Moldova. In his December installment, Shirky concedes that the "just-add-internet" zeitgeist takes an excessively optimistic view on the power of technology to change the politics of authoritarian governments. Still, he defends the basic proposition that, by limiting access to information and communications tools, and cracking down on those who use them, governments are robbing themselves of legitimacy at home and abroad. This, he writes, translates to a "net advantage" for insurrection in repressive states.

I found Morozov's response, which was published today, decidedly off-base in its premise. He argues that, if anything, these new technologies are making things worse for the everyday people who may fight for freedom. He downplays the advantages gained by Iranian protesters through their use of mobile technology-- but the ability of protesters to document both their own peaceful demeanor and the abuses perpetrated by the Basiji has cost the Iranian regime a great deal of legitimacy with their own people. The video of Neda's death became its own rallying cry of the uprising, and undoubtedly caused many Iranians to abandon their support of the government, even if quietly. With this kind of information and evidence free and available, the Iranian government has to work a lot harder to stay in power.

Protesters will use these tools to facilitate their cause, and repressive regimes like Iran's will fight back using the same technology. I think Morozov is right to cast a dubious eye on the frothy hype that often permeates conversation about how this technology will change the world. In some cases, mobile phones and social networks may not dramatically shift the balance of power between an authoritarian government and those who rally against it. But they create a world-- one in which abuses can be documented, information is free, and few can plead ignorance-- that is a lot trickier world for a government like Iran's to live in.

Mobile Culture

Happy Twenty-Ten! Here's something to warm you up for the new year:

The Economist has an essay in their latest issue that looks at cultural differences in the ways people around the world use their mobile phones.  Here's a tease:

ShhhhTECHNOLOGIES tend to be global, both by nature and by name. Say “television”, “computer” or “internet” anywhere and chances are you will be understood. But hand-held phones? For this ubiquitous technology, mankind suffers from a Tower of Babel syndrome. Under millions of Christmas trees North and South Americans have been unwrapping cell phones or celulares. Yet to Britons and Spaniards they are mobiles or móviles. Germans and Finns refer to them as Handys and kännykät, respectively, because they fit in your hand. The Chinese, too, make calls on a sho ji, or “hand machine”. And in Japan the term of art is keitai, which roughly means “something you can carry with you”.

This disjunction is revealing for an object that, in the space of a decade, has become as essential to human functioning as a pair of shoes. Mobile phones do not share a single global moniker because the origins of their names are deeply cultural. “Cellular” refers to how modern wireless networks are built, pointing to a technological worldview in America. “Mobile” emphasises that the device is untethered, which fits the roaming, once-imperial British style. Handy highlights the importance of functionality, much appreciated in Germany. But are such differences more than cosmetic? And will they persist or give way to a global mobile culture?

The article (which is long, but an interesting read), looks at a number of different aspects of mobile usage-- how much time people spend talking, in what environments people talk, how many devices people tend to carry around, etc.  At the end, the essay asks whether the differences in mobile usage around the world will dissappear before the "Apparatgeist," a German word describing the "spirit of the machine." If you're curious, give it a read.

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