Global Mobile

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.

Festivus Tab Dump

Santa PhoneGlobal Mobile is scaling back to a holiday blogging schedule for the next week or so (which is to say, I'm going on vacation), but come back in January and we'll dive into another year of mHealth, ICTs for Development, digital diplomacy, 21st Century Statecraft, and all your other favorite subjects.

To send you on your way and keep your Global Mobile appetite sated in the coming days, I offer a few links:

- China bans individuals from registering domain names, and investigates personal websites. (h/t SR)

- Russians are suspicious that permitting Cyrillic letters in URLs will isolate them on the web, cut them off from the world, and facilitate governmental surveillance. (h/t JB)

- Glenn Fleishman writes on "the killer app of 1900" (electricity) and parallels between the electrification of this country, and the data-fication. (h/t WK)

- On Google's public policy blog, they report on new studies that see rising censorship around the world.

- Erik Hersman looks at 2009 ITU mobile and internet stats, and sees Africa growing faster than the rest of the world. But there's still a long way to go for that continent.

Happy Holidays!

Should Access to Mobile Networks Be a Universal Right?

A few days ago my friend Alec Ross sent around a link to this statement from State: 

The United States welcomes the United Nations’ final passage of the resolution calling upon the Government of Iran to respect its human rights obligations fully. In passing this resolution, the international community has demonstrated once again its deep concern about the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran and the government’s failure to uphold its obligations under its own constitution and international human rights law.

The resolution, first adopted last month by the UN Third Committee, expresses deep concern over the brutal response of Iranian authorities to peaceful demonstrations in the wake of the June 12 election. It calls on the Government of Iran to abolish torture and arbitrary imprisonment, as well as any executions carried out without due process of law. Furthermore, it calls for the end of execution of minors, as well as the use of stoning as a means of execution. The resolution also calls on Iran to release political prisoners, including those detained following the June election. Finally, the resolution calls on Iran to cooperate fully with and admit entry to the UN Special Rapporteur on torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance.

Those in Iran who are trying to exercise their universal rights should know that their voices are being heard.

We should all be pleased the International Community is taking the brutality of the Iranian regime so seriously.  But I kept wondering, throughout this statement, should we putting access to mobile networks in as one of those rights denied by a repressive regime? Iran has repeatedly, and comprehensively, shut down access by regular people to their own mobile devices throughout this recent government crackdown against dissent. 

For some this may sound a little too techie.  But is it? If increasingly the way you connect to your friends, your family, the outside world, the way you get your information, news, conduct commerce, learn, the place you store your photos, your family videos, your messages from your son from school all live on these networks why should the government be able to shut them down?  Is arbitrary imprisonment of a few people really that much more malevolent than the arbitrary, capricious closing down of mobile devices for millions of people?

Obama has floated the idea of access to the global communications network as being a universal human right.  Should it be? 

Would love your thoughts on this one.

Good Guys and Bad Guys with Powerful Tools

Alec Ross spoke at Brookings this morning on 21st Century Statecraft. His speech was good, and similar to the one he gave at PopTech earlier this year. If you want to get the gist, I'd encourage you to check out the video from that conference, or wade through my live-tweetery from today's event.

I do, however, want to delve into one particular aspect of the speech-- something he spent more time on with his DC audience than he did with the techies in Maine: the potential for new technology to be used by bad actors to nefarious ends. This is a subject that almost always seems to come up when I'm talking about technology and statecraft, particularly when I'm talking to folks schooled in low-tech ways of doing things (read: old people). 

Computer TerroristIn a few recent blog posts, I've written about ways social networks, mobile phones, and other technology can and have been used by authoritarian governments, terrorist elements, and other bad guys to do bad things.  My point, basically, is that these technologies are just tools-- neither inherently good, nor bad-- and they should never be the ends of any initiative in themselves.

A pretty unbelievable new case of the undesirable use of technology was reported in today's Wall Street Journal. Militants in Iraq and Afghanistan have been using inexpensive, off-the-shelf software to tap into the video feeds broadcasted by our drone aircraft.  They can't control the aircraft, but they can see what we see, and can remove the advantage of surprise we gain from having the drones in the air. Most unbelievably:

The U.S. government has known about the flaw since the U.S. campaign in Bosnia in the 1990s, current and former officials said. But the Pentagon assumed local adversaries wouldn't know how to exploit it, the officials said. (h/t HH)

As they say in Iraq, all the stupid insurgents are dead. Ten years ago, it might have been safe to assume that a militant hiding in a cave in the Hindu Kush wouldn't be able to hack into the video feed of an unmanned drone. Now it's foolish and dangerous to make that assumption.

In his response to questions about bad actors using new technology, Ross made one very good point, very clearly: The fact that al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, and the Iranian government are using new technology is all the more reason to do the same ourselves. Indeed, if we fail to engage people using the increasingly ubiquitous tools that tie our world together, we immediately cede that battleground to our enemies.

Tomorrow: Alec Ross at Brookings on 21st Century Statecraft

At Brookings tomorrow, Alec Ross will be introducing the State Department's 21st Century Statecraft initiative to Washington.  He's given speeches on it in New York and Camden, Maine, so the assumption must be that DC is ready to handle it. The event is full, but I'll be there live-tweeting and post-blogging, so if you can't make it, tune in for updates.

Alec RossIt's still a somewhat vague, ill-defined concept, but 21st Century Statecraft is a hot topic for technology nerds and foreign policy wonks alike. (A big shout out if you also fall in both categories) Essentially, it's about leveraging new technology-- like SMS, social networking, online video, etc.-- to expand diplomacy beyond the traditional government-to-government relationships, and include everyday people around the world in the business of international relations.

I don't think it's too bold to say that NDN played a role in developing some of the ideas that underpin 21st Century Statecraft.  In particular, a 2007 paper co-authored by Ross and Simon Rosenberg argued that our world is increasingly tied together in a single, global information and communications network-- a change facilitated largely by the rapid adoption of mobile phones-- and that our government had to do a better job working in this changed world, and preparing its citizens to operate in this world.

This concept of a fully networked globe has been at the core of the new 21st Century Statecraft initiative that Ross will talk about tomorrow. If nearly every person on earth has access to the same information, and the same basic tools of communication, this opens radically new doors for American diplomacy, and can facilitate entirely new ways for our country to advance our interests and promote our values around the world.

Nobody said this technology wasn't disruptive. Like I've said before-- it's changing everything.

As Usual, Scandinavians are Laughing At You

Mobile network operator TeliaSonera has finished construction on 4G networks in Oslo and Stockholm, which means that, in addition to better health care and cleaner streets, many Scandinavians now enjoy wireless download speeds that are 10 times faster than yours. Burns a little bit, no?

4G NetworkThe network is based on the LTE standard, which has more or less solidified its position as the industry standard for 4G networks around the world.  Sprint Nextel (perhaps you heard their boasting) have launched the first 4G network in the U.S., but it's based on the soon-to-be obsolete WiMAX standard, and it's only available in a few second-tier markets (sorry, Las Vegas).

There's one catch to all the above-- none of the aforementioned networks actually have any phones that can operate on them yet.  In Scandinavia and in the U.S., the 4G networks are only accessible with a dongle and a laptop.  The first 4G-capable handsets are expected in mid-late 2010.  Nevertheless, this is all very exciting, and just a little infuriating. (Darn Swedes always beating us to the punch...)

How Wall Street Can Rescue Its Image in the US and Abroad

Back in April, Simon asked an important question:

As the American government struggles with what to do with its new ownership stake in storied corporate brands like AIG, Chrysler, Citigroup and General Motors, one of the fundamental questions that must be asked now is, can these brands - after months of stories about their insolvency - be saved?

Simon wasn't so sure, and neither am I. But if I were an executive at one of these banks, I would be doing everything I could to repair my brand. One of the worst problems these banks have caused is the global impression that America caused an international financial meltdown, which has been, to say the least, bad for both these banks and America’s interests abroad.

So what can they do? Here at NDN, and in particular Sam duPont's Global Mobile blog, we have been covering the role of mobile technology in what the State Department is calling 21st Century Statecraft. One of the most exciting innovations in this space is mobile banking, which Sam has been discussing quite a bit, and I blogged about a year and a half ago. (Sam recently posted a video of Alec Ross, the Senior Advisor on Innovation to Secretary Clinton, discussing this.)  MBanking has the potential to revolutionize standards of living globally by connecting some of the world’s poorest economies to modern financial services without needing to create the physical infrastructure of a bank. 

So here’s my modest proposal to American bankers, a group of people who’ve been particularly good at innovating over the last two decades: Call up State, say you want to build - for free - a modern, mobile communication device based banking system for less developed nations and that you want to put your best people on it. 

Imagine if every time a sizeable percentage of the world’s population did a financial transaction, they knew it was because of the American government and the American financial sector. There’s plenty of profit motive in it for banks, as the additional customers alone would be a boon. Not only would this be great for America’s standing in the world and help these banks repair their image, it would have that nice added benefit of dramatically improving people’s lives.

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