NDN Blog

Global Mobile Morning Links

A hot cup of links gathered from hither and yon to start your morning:

- The Times catches on to the mobile payments trend. Coming soon to a phone near you!

- A guy decides to send a million t-shirts to Africa. He uses social media to get the word out. People around the world tell him what a dumb idea it is.

- Freedom House launched a series of YouTube videos training people to use technology to beat censorship.

- The FT looks at the role mobiles played in Haiti and around the world after the quake.

- A Swedish man is suing Google for defamation.  Again with the intermediary liability.

- HP buys Palm, Apple buys Intrinsity (they make fast chips).

Enjoy the day!

Facebook, Google, and Privacy in the Cloud

As Mark Zuckerberg's deep-held desire to tell the whole world about your relationship status becomes ever clearer, four Democratic Senators have written him a letter with a few complaints and a few requests about Facebook's privacy policies.  Specifically, they're concerned about information that can no longer be kept private, information that is stored indefinitely by third parties (advertisers), and the default privacy settings which are very, very open, allowing partner sites to personalize their offerings to creepy levels.

I'll admit that I've given some thought to shutting down my Facebook account, simply because their convoluted and constantly-shifting privacy policies feel invasive and make it very difficult even to understand who can see what.  Facebook is pretty dominant in social networking market, and their privacy problems (Gawker has a roundup of the problems here, and the EFF covers the most recent changes) are to be taken seriously. But it's only a part of a bigger conversation about how, in our networked, information-rich society, we will balance privacy with security, with free speech, and with our desire for a personalized, responsive world.

Facebook GoogleWith all the information about us that is now available online in social networks, government databases, and cloud computing resources (like webmail, web-based documents, etc.), the practical expectation of any kind of obscurity or anonymity is increasingly suspect. Last week, Google shed some light on just how un-private our information is, by revealing the number of government requests for user information they had received by country. Brazil and the U.S. topped the list, with each government making more than 3,000 requests in the second half of 2009 (usually for law enforcement). A decade ago, much of this information could only have been discovered via wiretap-- which requires judicial intervention-- and now it's all available the government, upon request.

A big part of the problem here is legal ambiguity. The most up-to-date law on the books is the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) which, though forward-looking at the time, is hilariously out of date now. In 1986, the only e-mail was MCI Mail, which allowed you to download mail directly computer, whereupon it was deleted from their servers. Now, we're living in a world in which much of our e-mail is stored in remote servers indefinitely.  Needless to say, nobody saw this coming in 1986, and now all our data-- in Gmail, in Facebook, and elsewhere in the cloud-- is legally unprotected.  Put another way, it's highly ambiguous who owns your e-mail: it might be you, but it might just as easily be Google or Yahoo. Fortunately, there are people trying to answer these questions, particularly the individuals, institutions, and companies behind Digital Due Process.

So when the government comes knocking on Google or Facebook's door, how much information should Google provide about you?  How much should they be allowed to provide?  Does the government need a warrant? How much are we entitled to know about these activities?  Can Google be held responsible for user content they host-- as in the recent case in Italy? What about the ISPs, like Comcast and Verizon-- To what degree are they responsible for retaining data about where you go on the internet? To what degree are they allowed to retain this data?

These questions of "intermediary liability" will dominate the privacy debate in the coming years. On balance, I'm of the firm belief that this flood of information is a boon. A more data- and information-rich world is a better world. But we'll need to manage the flood in a way that upholds our Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure and maintains our right to privacy. For better or worse, we've probably lost a degree of privacy that we won't be getting back-- but really Mark, must you tell the whole world about my heartbreak?

UPDATE: Check out a recent post by Melody on Transcapitalist in which she rounds up a recent win, a loss, and a tie in the effort by intermediaries like Yahoo, Google, and the ISPs to avoid liability. It sounds to me like mostly good news, in that the government seems inclined to think that they ought to have a warrant if they're asking intermediaries for your data.  Even if they don't actually need one.

Empowered by Information: CGnet Swara in Chhattisgarh

In an online story yesterday, the BBC covered a project in India that is taking advantage of mobile phone penetration to combat ignorance, isolation and apathetic governance among the rural poor. The project, called CGnet Swara, is based in the state of Chhattisgarh, and allows citizen journalists to "report" stories by calling a Bangalore number and recording voice messages. Mobile-phone owning citizens then receive a text message and can call a unique number to hear the recorded story.  The service has seen considerable popularity since its launch in February-- and I think the factors that yielded success can be a model for other m4Dev projects:

Mobiles Leapfrogging- The project was formed in response to a clear and persistent problem. Too often, technology is seen as a panacea, a solution in search of a problem. To paraphrase an old axiom, connectivity is a powerful hammer, but not every problem is a nail. Here, the poor rural citizens of Chhattisgarh were living in serious information poverty. There was virtually no private media available: their TV access is limited to soap operas, Bollywood films and government sponsored news, and radio is state-run as well.

- The project accounted for the characteristics of the local population. What works in one place won't work everywhere. In Chhattisgarh, a huge percentage of the population is illiterate. By having citizen journalists report these news reports in audio, rather than in text, they are able to reach a much bigger slice of the population.

- The project leverages existing technology. People often seem to assume that m4Dev (mobiles for development, duh) projects are about handing out cell phones to poor people.  That couldn't be further from the truth; foisting new technologies on people rarely works. Rather, the real power of the mobile phone is in the fact that people around the world are adopting them of their own accord, and that the rapid expansion of the network is happening naturally. This project capitalizes on the fact that mobile phones have leapfrogged not just land-line phones, but TV, radio, and nearly every other information & communications service, and brings information into citizens' hands directly.

Whether this project will ultimately improve the lot of Chhattisgarh's villagers remains to be seen, but it CGnet has already given voice to some of the most systemically disenfranchised people in India. Access to information is a truly empowering force, and at the very least, I hope this project will allow citizens to hold their government accountable. (h/t SSG for the link)

UPDATE: A similar project is Iindaba Ziyafika ("the news is coming"), based in South Africa, which also uses mobiles to bring the work of citizen journalists to otherwise hard-to-reach people. PBS's Idea Lab has an older article on the project, and Ethan Zuckerman wrote about it last week. Curious to find out more about the quality of journalism produced by an older, more-established project like this one.

eBooks in the Classroom

I've been reading through the past few months of the blog at Worldreader.org, a project that is experimenting with using e-books (specifically, Amazon Kindles) to deliver textbooks and other reading materials to students.  They've undertaken two trials, one in Barcelona, Spain and another in Accra, Ghana. The blog is a very thoughtful and honest reflection on the project, and if this is a topic that interests you, it's worth spending some time browsing through the archives.

Kindles in AccraThey started on this project because of the potential upside of replacing paper texbooks with a high-tech solution. Primarily, that upside is the relatively cheap, high-speed delivery of books.  In Accra, texbooks are only replaced about every five years, and donated books are often irrelevant and of patchy quality ("All About Utah!" isn't even something that I'd be interested in reading). With the Kindle's connection to the local GSM wireless network, just about any book can be downloaded in less than a minute, at a fraction of the cost of buying a paper copy and having it shipped to hard-to-reach places.

In the blog, the authors also wrestle with the challenges that present themselves-- the high initial cost of the eBooks that could make the program difficult to replicate (though they got subsidized Kindles from Amazon), keeping the eBooks charged up, and the relative fragility of an electronic device. They also wrestle with some of the bigger questions around a project like this: Is this addressing a problem the market would eventually solve on its own? Is this just another form of cultural imperialism? How much of the early success of the Kindles is because of the novelty factor?

All these problems have solutions, at least in the longer term. Costs will drop, batteries will improve, and durable eBooks will find their way into schools. For me, reading an eBook will probably never completely replace the tactile experience of reading an old fashioned paper book. But it's hard to imagine a school of the future in which students are still lugging around massive, decade-old textbooks. That will be even more true in places like Accra, where schools and students stand to gain so much from the low-cost, instant delivery of the world's best and most up-to-date learning materials.

Meditations on the iPad

I've been using the iPad for about a week now and I've gotta say, it's been a pretty good week. Apple, as always, delivered a product that is both easy and fun to use, and while the critics are correct that it's not a device anybody needs, I'll go ahead and say it's a device you probably want.  Sleek and light, it is, more or less, an overgrown iPod Touch, but size matters, and the iPad has quickly become one of my favorite ways to consume media and interact with visual content.

The big knock on the iPad was that it didn't really do anything all that different from a laptop or a smartphone, and that its in-between size and functionality wasn't really better for anything. But this criticism is based on the idea that we're moving toward a world in which we all have a single, do-everything device-- and I think that's a fallacy.  Rather, I think we're moving into a world of many, interconnected devices, that all seamlessly access the same information and content. To have a robust market, the tablet computer doesn't have to be "better" than a smartphone or a netbook or a laptop, it just has to do certain things well.  And as it turns out, the iPad does a lot of things well.

Me & My iPadThe display is gorgeous, and it shows off video content and photos beautifully. I've had a lot of fun scrolling through the Guardian Eyewitness photo-of-the-day app, and YouTube videos have never seen a better platform. The built-in speakers are loud enough and of high-enough quality to be satisfying as you watch a TV show or movie, and video apps like the ABC's Player stream video seamlessly.  I should also add that the Twitterific iPad app is the single best way to interact with Twitter that I have yet discovered. Can you do all these things on a laptop or a smartphone? Yes.  But the iPad's size, weight, and sleek functionality make it the right device for certain circumstances.

I've only dabbled with it's e-reader functionality, but text displays nicely, and I think it will replace my Kindle. While I've always been a fan of the Kindle's e-ink, the device felt like it was missing a touchscreen.  Maybe it's because the iPad is sitting in my lap, rather than on my desk, but I don't mind reading on its backlit screen, even after a day in front of my monitor at work.  I've played around a bit with the Que, a touchscreen e-ink device due out later this year, and while e-ink may still have a place for those with sore eyes, I'm unconvinced.

Lest you think I'm on Apple's payroll, I will point out a few flaws, which are mostly well-documented.  The absence of Flash is annoying, as it means that most video platforms aside from YouTube don't work at all. You can't print from the iPad, and you can't really add content except via cable or by e-mailing it to yourself-- no Bluetooth or WiFi data transfer. The lack of a camera seems like an egregious oversight-- the iPad would have been great for videochatting. And ChatRoulette. But none of these are dealbreakers for me.

In my mind, the greatest potential of the iPad is as a platform for innovation. Just as the iPhone's major contribution was not in the hardware but in the app revolution that followed, the iPad has already seen a flood of innovative apps developed, with many more in the pipeline.  It's not very hard to imagine the iPad (or iPad-like devices) replacing texbooks for students, medical charts for doctors, playbooks for coaches, blueprints for developers, and yellow legal pads for people like me. It's a networked world we're increasingly living in, and anything that you previously used to use to interact with information, media, data, or content is soon to be replaced with devices like this one.

mGiving and iAds: Minting Money on a Mobile

The popular NPR program This American Life has been experimenting with soliciting donations via mobile, with good results. Says Program Manager Seth Lind:

Our theory was that the ease of giving that way would be really attractive to people, coupled with the fact that a lot of people are listening to the show, or the podcast, on a device they can text with. Our traditional way of asking for donations on a podcast was sending people to a website – if you’re out jogging, you’re not really going to do that. But if you’re out jogging listening to the show on your iPhone or another smartphone that plays media, maybe you would stop and take the 30 seconds or less to send a text. We thought that it could lower the bar for people and make it a lot easier to donate.

And from a MobileActive review of their success:

This American LifeThe campaign, which is still live although not being actively promoted, has so far raised $142,225 from 28,445 individual donations. To contribute, users text the word "LIFE" to a short code (a five-digit number), and a $5 charge is added on to their monthly mobile phone bill...

Lind added that he thought the campaign to be successful because it doubled the number of individual people donating (20,000 people donated in the June 2009; in the December 2009 campaign, more than 40,000 people had donated either online or via mobile). However, because the donations via mobile were a flat $5, the total raised in the December campaign was roughly equal to the total raised in the previous campaign even with more people donating... To incease the total, mobile donations will be set at $10 when the next fund drive begins in June 2010.

As someone who often enjoys an episode of This American Life while out for a jog or a ride on my bike, I'll keep an ear out in June to do my part-- via SMS!

iAdApple is looking at a different way of making money via mobile, with their entry into the mobile advertising space. Apple's bet is that Google's hegemony in the search ad business is fated to be short-lived, as people spend more and more of their online time inside Apps, rather than browsing the internet (a good bet, to my mind). Later this year, when Apple releases the latest version of the iPhone/iTouch/iPad operating system, developers will have the capability to include advertisments in their Apps, and Apple will be taking a cool 40% off the top of advertising revenues.  This could be a model for more free, ad-supported Apps-- and a recipe for Apple to take in revenues in the hundreds of millions off their iAds.

Alec Ross on How the Internet Will Shape Open & Closed Societies

We had a great time yesterday with Alec Ross, who came to talk about how connection technologies are shaping societies around the world. He began with the argument that, in the 21st century, the major fault line dividing countries will fall between open and closed societies-- rather than the right-left division that defined the 20th century. He offered a compelling historical perspective on the open-closed divide, going back more than two millennia to contrast the progress and vibrancy seen in societies with open, tolerant attitudes, with the intellectual stagnation of closed societies.

He went on to argue that 2009 was the worst year for the internet that we have seen, as far as openness and freedom of information. Increasingly, states see the internet as a force they can control-- and will create something like a national intranet to filter out unwanted content. Turkey, Australia, Italy and others have all shown hesitation to embrace a free and open internet. While the global network does hold great potential for promoting openness and freedom, some states are becoming increasingly savvy at using the same technologies to stifle freedoms of expression and information.

Ross concluded by saying that the greatest implications in the open vs. closed debate will be in developing countries.  Latin America, Africa and Asia are now determining what the internet will look like in their own countries, and their decisions will determine whether their societies benefit from the opportunities afforded by the global network, or whether their poverty is perpetuated by shutting off freedom of expression.

A video of Ross' talk is here (with a full version, including Simon's intro and the Q&A, coming soon):

I couldn't agree more with Ross, and all I'll add now is an observation that the greatest danger posed by China's censorship may not be domestic, but rather in the example it sets for other countries, particularly in the developing world.  China is offering a whole new model of authoritarianism-- the Chinese government has managed to be economically vibrant and geopolitically successful, without relaxing their firm grip on the country.  As poorer countries set out on a path toward development, China offers an unfortunately compelling model for leaders loath to give up any of their power. I applaud the State Department in their efforts to make an even more compelling case for a free and open internet.

From Whence Tomorrow's Mobile Innovation?

The NY Times had a good article yesterday from the always-worth-reading Anand Giridharadas on the role mobile phones are playing in the developing world. He asks if the U.S. is going to be left out of the next great wave of tech innovation because it will happen on simpler platforms-- cheap cell phones & SMS-- rather than on sexier platforms such as, say, the iPad (FD: I'm writing this post on an iPad[!]).

In the developing world, banking is happening more and more over mobile phones. So are commerce, information services, and every kind of communication. And with well over 4 billion mobile phone users on earth (compared to only about half a billion subscribers to broadband), one must imagine that there is a future for these new applications of mobile technology. But much of the mobile innovation is happening outside the U.S., because, basically, Americans just aren't that into it.

In the near term, American technology firms are making the right decisions: bringing iPads, HD video, and sweet apps to the slim but wealthy demographic that wants (but doesn't really need) these things. In the longer term, I hope, for their sake, that these companies are thinking about building products that work for the other 6 billion people on earth-- people who are (or will be) accessing the global network on their mobile devices, at slower speeds, and using it to seek information and services relevant to their lives.

To be sure, what's relevant to a mechanic in Nairobi might not be relevant for a Rajasthani farmer, but the point of access to the network will likely be similar-- a simple mobile device-- and the applications, if not the content, will be similar. In the mobile banking space, we're seeing some innovation in the U.S.-- Obopay is an early entrant here, and you can finally pay for DC parking meters in DC with your phone-- but given their experience and expertise operating in the developing world, it's not hard to imagine Safaricom dominating the space for a long time. Particularly among the 6 billion people who have neither money nor use for an iPad.

Today at Noon: Alec Ross on Connection Technologies in Open & Closed Societies

As I may have mentioned, we're hosting Alec Ross, Senior Advisor on Innovation to Secretary Clinton, for a speech today on the role of connection technologies in open & closed societies.  He'll be talking about the tension between societies that are increasingly open by virtue of connection technologies, and societies that are increasingly closed by government suppression and manipulation of connection technologies and communications networks.  Cool, right?

If you can, come by our offices at noon, and if you can't, we'll be webcasting the speech LIVE, starting at 12:10 pm EDT.  Tune in here. And if you miss it altogether, we'll have video up on our YouTube page and on this very blog in the coming days.  So, no excuses.

Technology and Cultural Exchange: African Groups, Global Roots

Global cultural exchange didn't begin with YouTube or broadband or mobile phones, but connection technologies sure are speeding up that exchange, and giving artists around the world to collaborate and learn from each other with an unprecedented speed and ease. A case study in this phenomenon is Just a Band, a group based in Kenya who are earning some well-deserved fame for their music, which is a truly global blend of American hip hop, European electronic and West African Afrobeat. I first discovered them with their 2009 single Usinibore.

The video for their song Ha-He, which Just a Band released last month, has gone viral in Kenya, spurring a full blown internet meme around "Makmende" a fictional superhero. Makmende might be aptly described as a Kenyan Chuck Norris… i.e.: "Makmende can never have a heart attack, his heart is not so foolish to attack him." The video calls to mind the kung fu blaxploitation films of the '70s and '80s... at any rate, it's a funny video, a fun song, and an interesting example of a Kenyan group drawing on global roots:

Another terrific example of this is Malian group Amadou and Mariam-- "the blind couple of Bamako." The ancestry music has done a few round-trips between Africa and the Americas, drawing heavily on American Blues, which of course has its roots in the work songs of West African slaves, as well as Afrobeat and West African folk. If you haven't heard their 2005 album, Dimanche a Bamako, I cannot recommend it highly enough. This video is, again, a pastiche of different styles and influences, but the song carries a universal, and powerfully positive message.

Hope you enjoy, and happy Friday!

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