NDN Blog

India Bans Pre-Paid Mobiles in Kashmir - Security or Suppression?

For eight years, the Indian government dragged its feet until, in 2003, it finally permitted mobile phones in conflict-torn Kashmir. Intelligence officials had feared that Kashmiri and Pakistani militants would use the phones to plan attacks on Indian army outposts throughout the region, but in '03 they relaxed the ban, and the past six years have been the most peaceful since the conflict began in 1989. Causation? Probably not. But correlation, anyway.

Srinagar Cell PhoneLast week, the Indian government walked back on technological freedoms in Kashmir, banning pre-paid mobile connections. In Kashmir, as in much of the developing world, pre-paid is a popular option thanks to its known costs, and low commitment; the new ban will take phones out of the hands of 3.8 million Kashmiris. Unsurprisingly, hundreds of Kashmiris have taken to the streets of Srinagar, the capital city, to protest the law in recent days.

The stated reasons for the prohibition are that mobile vendors are not conducting proper background checks on new subscribers, and that militants are using mobile phones to detonate bombs-- a practice observed in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. I suspect the actual reasons are considerably more Machiavellian.

Srinagar is one of the most heavily-militarized cities in the world, and the dense presence of Indian troops has led to frequent clashes between Kashmiri civilians and the military. As the BBC documented earlier this year, young Kashmiris have been using their cell phones to bear witness to the disproportionate, often unprovoked violence of the Indian army. With a camera phone in every hand, every citizen is a journalist, and the explosion of photos, videos and other first-hand accounts of the violence in Kashmir has brought images of the violence to the world.

What's more, the Indian intelligence services have met with some success finding and killing militants by monitoring the cell phone conversations of Kashmiris. The consistency and higher background-check requirements for post-paid cell phone plans makes it much easier to monitor those subscribers.

It's my strong suspicion that the pre-paid ban in Kashmir has more to do with suppressing critical citizen media and monitoring civilian phone conversations than it does with preventing phone-bomb attacks. The ban consists of a suppression of basic freedoms and a violation of privacy in an already repressed state. Further, the government is denying citizens a valuable tool for economic development and access to the global ICT network-- increasingly a fundamental right in itself.

FD: I spent some time reporting in Kashmir. My views are certainly informed by that experience. My reporting is published here.

Global Mobile News: The Times is On It

Four highly relevant news hits from the Grey Lady in the past few days:

- The number of text messages Americans are sending is, well, a lot, and growing very quickly:  135 Billion in June '09 vs. 75 billion in June '08. We're catching up to the rest of the world in our love for SMS.

- The Business section on turning cell phone cameras into microscopes. Best of all is that these tools are relatively inexpensive. There's great potential here for community health workers in the developing world to take microscopic photographs of a blood sample or something else, send it to a laboratory thousands of miles away, and get results back almost immediately. True mobile health.

- An interesting column exploring the nature of Twitter, its searchability, and how "Proximity can be a proxy for relevance," in the words of Ryan Sarver of Twitter. Erik Hersman of Ushahidi, one of my favorite SMS-based social applications, is quoted talking about how his service maps information in both time and place.

- From the Bits blog, a wild new technology that could allow potential computer/smartphone users in the developing world to skip mice, keyboards and screens: A small projector and camera, hung around the neck, that can use any wall, hand, or other surfaces into touchable projection screens to navigate a user interface. The hardware is relatively cheap, at around $350, and the software, already running on Windows Mobile and Android, could be adapted to run on simple Nokia devices. (h/t Dan)

If you see something I should be writing about, send it my way! I offer you fame, glory, and huge cash prizes in return.

Droids Dropping

I'm sitting here watching Game 6 of the World Series (and feeling pretty good that my Yankees are going to take home the crown tonight), and saw yet another striking yet deeply menacing ad for the forthcoming Droid (I wrote about the first one last week). There's been an awful lot of mobile-related advertising throughout the series-- from HTC (my favorite ad), Motorola, Windows, RIM/Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and others.  But these ads from the Verizon/Google/Motorola triumvirate for the forthcoming Droid have easily been the most eye-catching.

Like the "iDon't" ad, the new, minute-long "Stealth" ad is utterly sinister, showing the new smartphones encased in UFO-like shells, dropped from a fleet of stealth bombers, rocketing toward middle America like an apocalyptic meteor shower, terrifying horses and television audiences alike.  I mean, creepy, right?:

The sheer ominous-ness of the ad, combined with the fact that there's no real mention in the ad of what the Droid is or does, leads me to believe that they're targeting early-adopter types-- gadget junkies who know the Droid is coming and Cant. Freaking. Wait. (As opposed to folks more like the cowboy in the ad-- as he says: "What in the world is that?") The early reviews, as I said, have been good.  It releases on Friday.  We continue to wait...

Life Tools & Cheap Phones Come to Indonesia

Nokia PhonesNokia sells more handsets than any other manufacturer in the world, but they have never really caught on in the United States.  Rather, they make their bones selling simple, cheap, virtually indestructible phones in Europe and in much of the developing world. 

To avoid getting pigeonholed in this less-lucrative corner of the market, Nokia has increasingly been moving into offering services built into their handsets. A year ago, they launched Nokia Life Tools in India-- a suite of applications meant particularly for phone users in rural, disconnected areas, to give them access to agricultural information, educational services, and entertainment media. 

The services were evidently a hit, as Nokia is now rolling out the same Life Tools in Indonesia, starting later this year. The tools, which run off a graphically rich, multilingual interface, help users by enabling access to weather forecasts and market prices for their produce, test preparation and English-language training, and music, jokes, and movie reviews.

In addition, Nokia just announced five new low-cost phones intended for rural environments, including their cheapest model to date. The $30 Nokia 1280 has a slightly shorter battery life than its predecessor-- 8.5 instead of 9 hours-- but it has other built-in features that make it a useful tool for a typical villager, including a flashlight and an FM radio. My favorite aspect is that the new phone enables five separate phone books; in many poorer areas, phone-sharing is an increasingly common way for people to stay connected, and the separation of phone books is a feature that-- irrelevant in the US-- makes the phone more valuable, and more functional for a user in rural Indonesia. Another great insight from Jan Chipchase and his colleagues at Nokia.

2009 Election News Roundup

In a throwback to the good old days of daily roundups, I've put together a compendium of some of the best analysis of yesterday's elections floating around the internet this morning. Enjoy:

- Mike Tomasky says it wasn't really about Obama.

- Chris Cillizza sorts through all the numbers.

- Marc Ambinder offers 11 ways to look at yesterday.

- Ben Smith covers Mike Bloomberg's surprisingly close brush with fate, and also writes about losses for gay marriage, wins for gay executives.

- Ezra Klein on statewide vs. national elections, the economy, and voters who didn't show up.

- Hendrik Hertzberg has five predictions for the next four years.

- Chuck Todd and the Today Show sqad ask if the elections are representative of a broader shift:

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

And here's NDN's Take:

Secretary Clinton Announces "Civil Society 2.0"

Speaking today in Marrakesh, Secretary Hillary Clinton announced a new initiative of the State Department, "Civil Society 2.0." Under this program, State will provide funding and expertise to allow grassroots civil society organizations around the world use technology to grow and work more effectively.  From the press release:

“Civil Society 2.0” includes the following components:

  1. Deploying a team of experienced technologists to work with civil society organizations around the globe to provide training and support to build their digital capacity. The competencies developed in the trainings will include:
    • How to build a website
    • How to blog
    • How to launch a text messaging campaign
    • How to build an online community
    • How to leverage social networks for a cause
  2. Partnering these technologists with local civil society organizations and governments to develop and implement technology-based solutions to local problems.
  3. Publishing interactive “how to” programs and curriculum online to help organizations that do not have access to in-person assistance.
  4. Creating a curated open platform that allows any citizen or company to develop, share or suggest content for the curriculum.
  5. Allocating $5 million in grant funds for pilot programs in the Middle East and North Africa that will bolster the new media and networking capabilities of civil society organizations and promote online learning in the region.

In the past, this kind of capacity building would have been undertaken by Western governments and NGOs. By letting foreign peoples and governments tackle their own problems, it's much more likely that those problems will be addressed and solved in effective, locally-relevant ways. What's more, this spread of technology will help promote American ideas, and make the U.S. a more sympathetic actor in the eyes of those around the world.

This is yet another element of the very savvy "21st Century Statecraft" that Secretary Clinton and her advisor Alec Ross are applying around the globe, and a part of the "Smart Power" approach to global leadership that the Obama Administration has embraced.

How Do You Say "Dot Com" in Urdu?

Sometime next year, for the first time, an internet domain name without any Latin characters will go live.

WangZhanICANN, the organization in charge of domain name and IP address registration, among other tasks, voted on Friday to permit domain names composed of nearly 100,000 different characters, beyond the 37 currently-permitted characters you see on your keyboard. Hindi and Chinese, Greek and Hebrew, Russian and Arabic characters will all be allowed in top-level domains.

The hope is that this change in policy will bring the internet within the reach of yet more people. It will certainly make the internet a more viable tool for children learning to read in languages that don't use the Latin alphabet. It's not an earth-moving event, perhaps, but it's a small step that recognizes the global, boundary-free nature of the internet.

If you're into this kind of thing, here's a hopelessly sappy video from ICANN celebrating the change:

All Mobiles Eve

Happy Halloween from Global Mobile and the rest of the NDN squad! I'll leave you to your pumpkin carving, trick or treating, and general ghouling about with this week's New Yorker cover, featuring parents exploring the power of mobile networks, while out on Halloween night:

New Yorker Halloween Cover

Spooky? A bit. How appropriate.

Food for Iraqi Refugees via Mobile

While the State Department is using SMS to build social networks in Pakistan, the UN World Food Programme is using SMS to distribute food aid to Iraqi refugees in Syria. Beneficiaries will recieve vouchers via text message with codes that can be redeemed at state-run stores.  So far it's just a pilot program, serving just 1,000 of the 130,000 Iraqi refugees recieving food aid in Syria, but the hope is to scale it broadly. If it proves successful, it's win-win-win:

WFP Mobile Food VouchersIt's great for the beneficiaries, who can now spend their voucher on whatever food they like-- including perishables like milk and eggs, which are not included in the typical food aid basket. What's more, beneficiaries can now avoid the trip to the WFP headquarters and the wait on line for food.

It's a boon for local business.  Instead of the WFP importing rice, flour, chickpeas, and whatnot, they'll now be passing the cash to shopkeepers, and circulating money in the Syrian economy.

And it's good for the WFP-- if the program scales well, they'll save a bundle on food distribution costs.

I think before long we'll be seeing something similar in the United States replacing the food stamp program. The benefits aren't quite as significant as in the WFP's situation, and the functionality will be different (we don't, for example, have many government-run groceries in the States), but I imagine this will be one part of an inevitable shift of government service delivery onto web and mobile platforms.

(h/t Dolbee)

State Department Supporting Social Tech in Pakistan

Pakistan Cell PhoneSecretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Islamabad, and yesterday she announced American support for a new mobile-phone based social network in Pakistan.  The network is called "Humari Awaz," which means "our voice," and it is accessible through a free SMS shortcode on all five mobile networks. Pakistanis will be able to use these networks for purely social ends, or to enhance business, media, agricultural, and other purposes. The US government will pay for the first 24 million text messages sent through Humari Awaz.

As in much of the developing world, Pakistan's 95 million mobile subscriptions vastly outnumber landline or internet connections, so it makes a lot of sense to leverage SMS technology to tie people together.  I'd be curious to hear more about who State is partnering with on this-- particularly who will be operating the back-end-- and how the network will function for users.

But on a less tech-y and more geopolitical note, I'm a big fan of the State Department's continued embrace of "21st Century Statecraft," to advance American interests by using modern technology and encouraging its adoption around the world. Pakistan is the "most dangerous place on earth," and also one of the places most central to American security. Leveraging social technology to help build civil society, improve the economy, and empower Pakistani citizens is a smart, focused use of our power, and initiatives like this may do more to promote American security than any direct US action against al Qaeda's strongholds in Waziristan ever could.

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