June 3, 2008

text populi

Recently RCR Wireless News ran an interesting article about how the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have adopted text messaging as a campaign tool. How the text message capability originally designed for network engineers to communicate with each other has become a political tool is a fascinating story in user-generated mobile applications.

The even more amazing story is how texting has become a medium of free political expression in nations where governments seek to control such expression. Broadcasting was the 20th Century’s route around oppression. Throughout the Cold War the Voice of America and other broadcast outlets circumvented governments to deliver information directly to the people. Then the Internet opened the promise of user-generated free expression. Now, with more mobile phones than PCs by a factor of around 3-to-1, the texting capability of the mobile device has become the voice of the people. Mobile devices and networks turn each individual into a broadcaster capable of creating and disseminating their own information. The story of how the text message, “go 2 edsa wr blk” mobilized the people of the Philippines in 2001 to overthrow the government is well known. It was a simple model of activists creating a message that became viral as each recipient acted as their own broadcaster by sending the message onward to friends.

There is something inherently powerful in the ability of an individual to create editorial content for distribution across a self-sustaining network of users. The old line used to be that freedom of the press belonged only to those who owned a printing press. Today, thanks to mobile devices, everyone is a potential publisher.

Six months ago when the government of Pakistan shut down television news, SMS became the way around the censorship. On a single day during the blackout almost 700 million text messages were sent. The same experience happened at about the same time in Kenya when the government shut down all live radio and television broadcasts after a disputed election. While mobile penetration in Kenya is low, everyone knows someone who owns a phone (or knows someone who knows). Reporters Without Borders reported that news was “circulating mainly by means of SMS messages.”

Governments, of course, have tried to thwart this new “Text Populi.” When gasoline was rationed in Iran a short time ago, the government shut off texting on the wireless network in order to keep the people from organizing protests. The Kenyan government used SMS itself to threaten texters with the message, “The Ministry of Internal Security urges you to please desist from sending or forwarding any SMS that may cause public unrest. This may lead to your prosecution.”

Not surprisingly, the North Korean government has been the most repressive in throttling the free expression capability of mobiles. Because the signals from China’s mobile networks cross the Korean border the North Korean secret police troll with signal detectors to determine where someone might be using a smuggled cellphone. It brings up the image from old World War II movies of the Nazis moving through a village with a radio detector to try and locate the Resistance. A Korean human rights group reports that North Korea has executed people caught with mobile phones.

As Americans we can take pride in our seemingly fractious political process, including the ability to download a ringtone or learn about an upcoming rally. As members of the world wide wireless community we should also take pride in how the technology we have championed has had such a significant impact on the basic human right of free expression. The wireless network is now the world’s most pervasive and ubiquitous network. In the process the mobile device has morphed from being a phone to becoming a tool of personal empowerment.