Global Mobile

Framing Questions for Personal Democracy Forum

I'm on my way up to New York this morning for the 2010 edition of the Personal Democracy Forum, which Jose Antonio Vargas aptly calls "The quintessential hub of examining where politics is headed in our tech-centric, increasingly mobile, socially connected 21st century."

The leading question at this year's conference is "Can the Internet Fix Politics?" which makes an interesting frame.  I've argued here before that, despite all the dust that's been kicked up over whether the internet is a good thing or a bad thing, a panacea or the inevitable ruin or our society, the internet and all other connection technologies-- mobile phones, social media, etc.-- are, at the end of the day, just tools. This global network has the potential to be a platform for warfare, terror, oppression and manipulation. It also has the capacity to fight ignorance, isolation, poverty and disease the world over.

With extraordinary potential for both good and ill, they'll seem to take the characteristics of those whose hands they're in, but they're just tools. So, as PDF opens, Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej ask the question:  "We all agree the internet is changing politics, can it fix politics too? Can it make politics more open, participatory, responsive and accountable? Can it help restore trust in self-government and perhaps convince more of us that the country is on the right track?"

I'm looking forward to responses to these questions over the next two days, and you can expect to be updated here (or follow the twitter-action at #pdf10).

Marshalling New Technologies

I want to highlight one passage from the Obama Administration's National Security Strategy, released last week. It comes in the "Advancing our Interests" chapter, in the "Values" section, under the "Promote Democracy and Human Rights Abroad" subheading:

Marshalling New Technologies and Promoting the Right to Access Information: The emergence of technologies such as the Internet, wireless networks, mobile smart-phones, investigative forensics, satellite and aerial imagery, and distributed remote sensing infrastructure has created powerful new opportunities to advance democracy and human rights. These technologies have fueled people-powered political movements, made it possible to shine a spotlight on human rights abuses nearly instantaneously, and increased avenues for free speech and unrestricted communication around the world. We support the dissemination and use of these technologies to facilitate freedom of expression, expand access to information, increase governmental transparency and accountability, and counter restrictions on their use. We will also better utilize such technologies to effectively communicate our own messages to the world.

Congress to Take up Telecom Act

A bevy of Democratic lawmakers announced today that they plan to take a whack at updating the 1934 Communications Act of 1934 and the Telecommunications act of 1996 (which amended the original). Starting in June, the Commerce Committees of the House and Senate will convene issue-focused stakeholder meetings to work toward a bipartisan amendment to the act.

Here's your background: In March, the FCC unveiled their National Broadband Plan to connect all Americans to the broadband network. In April, the DC Circuit Court ruled against the FCC in Comcast v. FCC, throwing the FCC's ability to regulate broadband into legal question, and putting the Broadband Plan on weak legal footing. In May, the FCC announced they would find a "third way" between giving up on their Plan and subjecting broadband access providers to the stringent "Title II" regulation scheme, and said they would only apply a few basic Title II provisions that would establish clear FCC control without strangling the industry.

While the FCC's proposal was, at face value, a very good one, the legal framework was built on promises, and the door would be left open for future Commissioners to radically re-interpret the FCC's authority. For the FCC to have the authority to pursue its goals-- and just about everybody agrees their goals are important and well-worth pursuing-- congressional action is the best step forward. Congress has the ability to give the FCC clear authority over broadband, and to write the policy in a way that doesn't discourage investment or innovation.  In an address to NDN back in March, Verizon EVP Tom Tauke argued that this was the best way forward, and I'm glad to see that his sensible suggestions have been taken up by our Democratic lawmarkers.

In 1996, not many of us were using broadband.  And just about none of us foresaw the legitimate competition that mobile broadband would eventually pose to wireline broadband providers. And in 1934, well, things were even more different then. The struggle over whether broadband should be classified as a "telecommunications service" or an "information service" is indicative of just how badly we need an update to our laws.  Hats off to Sens. Rockefeller & Kerry and Reps. Waxman & Boucher for taking up this daunting task, and I look forward to some good dialogue.


Pakistan Quashing Net Freedoms, Citizens Speaking Out

Yesterday, on orders from a Pakistani court, the Pakistani Telecommunications Authority (PTA) blocked access to Facebook. The move was in response to a page on the site called "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day," exhorting Facebook users to draw depictions of Mohammed, in the purported hope of spurring debate about Muslims' objection to images of the founder of their faith. Today, the PTA expanded their ban to include Flickr, Wikipedia, and YouTube, citing a rise in "objectionable content."

Twitter, however, has remained online, and many of Pakistan's tech-savvy have been venting frustration there. Shoaib Taimur (@shobz) captured the basic sentiment of the Twitterati in one remark:

note to everyone: I oppose the ban on websites. I dont endorse Blasphemy but curtailing our freedom of speech is too much #fb

The Facebook group is broadly considered to be a tasteless and tactless effort, but the ham-handed response by the Pakistani courts and the PTA is worse. Huma Imtiaz (@HumaImtiaz), a Pakistani journalist, sees the work of Islamic hard-liners in the action of the government. In a blog post, she argues that the PTA has previously shown great ability to block individual pages showing content that would be damning to the Pakistani government, but is now responding with blanket censorship to appease a radical minority.

Sabeen Mahmud (@sabeen) and Dr. Awab Alvi (@DrAwab) organized a press conference this afternoon to speak out against censorship.  As Mahmud tweeted later:

I have been insisting that the outrage needs to be about Internet censorship not FB. @kidvai

The press conference quickly devolved into an accusatory shouting match, with the media taking the side of the government.  As Dr. Alvi tweeted afterward:

Safely home Sad experience, our point we condemn cartoon caricature but Not a blanket ban on websites, became issue of muslim non-muslim

And Mahmud followed, sarcastically:

>> Well done mainstream media. You outdid yourself today. To think we marched on the streets for your freedom.

Oh wait, I remember now! You thought I shouldn't have expressed outrage and should have watered down my stance >>

It's heartening to see individuals standing up against censorship for their freedom of speech and freedom to information. What's happening in Pakistan right now is a prime example of the danger the internet faces of losing its open, global nature, and becoming a series of national networks, subject to censorship, borders, and the whims of policymakers. Some of Pakistan's Twitterati predict the bans will be lifted in the coming days, and I hope they're right.

It's nearly midnight in Karachi now, but I expect these individuals and this situation will be active and exciting to follow tomorrow.  On Twitter, I'd recommend following @sabeen, @DrAwab, @HaroonRiaz, and @HumaImtiaz for good, regular (English-language) updates.

Space-Binding, Time-Splitting Soccer

"Live" coverage of the Olympics and the World Cup are space-binding and time-splitting technologies of international sporting culture, recorded and read across the world through a complex prism of nation, region, race, class, sexual practice and gender.

- David Rowe, Jim McKay & Toby Miller, Come Together: Sport, Nationalism and the Media Image

That quote comes from Mediasport, an edited volume on how media affects sport and vice versa.  It was written in 1998, before the real space-binding technologies went truly global. I wrote last week about how the World Cup has Mandela & World Cup Trophythe potential to be a big driver of mobile adoption around the world. Basically, I argued that, because this is the first World Cup to be played in a world with widespread mobile access, people from Togo to Tokyo will want to get SMS score updates, audio broadcasts, and even live video of the games.

The appropriate level of technology will vary from place to place, but I'd be surprised if we didn't see a global bump, as everyone upgrades just a little-- whether it's an Argentine farmer who buys his first phone so that he can get score updates in the fields, or a Danish businessman who needs a way to watch the games in his lap at the conference table.

I'll go a step further even, to speculate that we'll likely see a great deal of innovation and new products and services emerging to enable yet more space-binding and time-splitting technology around the world. In places where television access is limited, I'd have to imagine there's a strong market for SMS score updates, and further, a place for a company to step in and offer those updates for free, in exchange for the occasional SMS advertisement. In the developing world, SMS is a marketing tool with powerful, largley untapped potential. The World Cup may go a long way to pushing that forward.

Anyhow, here's another video to pump you up for South Africa's World Cup, this one brough to you by the good folks at Pepsi, and including some space-binding, time-splitting play from Lionel Messi, Thierry Henri, Didier Drogba:

#HaitiTech: Lessons for the Future

I was over at the State Department yesterday for a series of conversations on the role technology played in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. DipNote has a writeup of the day's events, but I wanted to highlight the first panel of the day, which Katie Stanton rounded up here

Much has been made of the way text messaging saved lives in Haiti after the quake. In her speech on Internet Freedom, Hillary Clinton closed with a story about one woman who was pulled from the rubble after texting for help. But the actual process that sprang up to make all of this work was intricate, incredible, and frankly, highly improbable. 

It began just hours after the earthquake, when a group of Tufts graduate students (Roz Sewell spoke on the panel, and pointed to Patrick Meier as a driving force) used their connections in government, in the non-profit world, and in the Haitian diaspora to build a system that worked something like this: Haitians could send a text message to a free shortcode-- 4346-- and their message would be immediately added to a database, where it would be translated from Creole to English, and then sent back to the operations center at Tufts (so proud of my alma mater). The group of volunteers there would decide whether the texted request was actionable, and if it was, they would forward the request on to the people on the ground who could take action.  Through this whole loop, a message could move in a matter of minutes.

I mean, amazing, right? But so improbable, really. And entirely dependent on the initiative of a few creative, inspired students. Clearly, this should be institutionalized for the future, so that the next time a disaster strikes, there is an organization or government body with the clear task of making something like this happen.  Even then, it's hard to know whether it could work in a disaster that-- for lack of a better way of saying it-- got less press.

The Tufts folks have started an independent, academic review of their work, which will hopefully yield a clear picture of what they did right, what they could have done better, and what we should learn and mimic for future disasters. They're also transitioning the capabilities and resources of their "4346" service to a new, Haitian government-run, citizen text hotline. Both good ideas. Hopefully, we'll be ready to respond to the next disaster in an effective and timely manner.  And hopfully, we can help Haitians get back on their feet, empower their own government, and rebuild their country.

The World Cup and Global Connectivity

Every four years, it's amazing to see the way soccer (futbol) brings people together from all over the world, with eyes in Japan, Iran, Algeria, Brazil, and every other country on earth glued to the TV screen. For a month, politics and dispute disappear, and the world comes together over one simple thing.

The World Cup is now barely a month away, and I've been thinking about what this huge global event (the hugest global event?) means for global connectivity. Four years ago, when the World Cup was held in Germany, less than half of people on earth had access to the global communications network.  Only about 41% of the world's population had a mobile phone-- barely 20% in Africa. Today, in South Africa, where the World Cup will begin next month, nearly 100% of the population has a mobile phone-- and through that device, instant access to the worldwide information and communications network. Over 4 billion people on earth are connected.

I talk a lot about how universal access to a truly global network is, in itself, a seminal event in human history, and I wonder if this World Cup will be a tipping point in that regard:  pushing up the number of mobile subscribers because everyone wants to know the score of their games, increasing the number of smartphone users because everyone will want video on the go, increasing the use of cross-border communication for cheering, chatting and taunting... Fururism is a hazy science, but how could this global event not feed off of and contribute to global connectivity?

Anyhow, this ad, which already is one of my all-time favorite ads, sums up the nature of the World Cup as well as anything:

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.

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