I’m giving a talk on activist uses of mobile phones in the developing world later this month. Prior to the talk, the organizers have asked me to submit a short paper on the topic – here’s a draft of what I’m planning on turning in, with the hope that you guys can offer some comments and make it better.
(This paper revised 4/26/07, thanks to the comments offered here and on Worldchanging. Thanks, everyone, for great examples and for helping me improve this paper. It is, of course, CC-attribution licensed, so if it’s useful at all in your work, please pass it around…)
If you ask a US-based activist the most important technical development of the past five years, they’ll likely tell you about the rise of citizen media, the use of blogs and web community sites to disseminate information, organize events and raise money. Bloggers helped make Howard Dean a contender for the democratic nomination for president in 2004, and many of the people involved with his online campaign have gone on to develop increasingly complicated software, helping support efforts towards Congressional transparency as well as political organizing. Because blogs were such a visible manifestation of political discourse, they’ve been extensively studied and reported on, which leads to a sense of the importance of these media for the campaign’s impact.
Ask an activist from the developing world the same question and you’ll get a different answer: the most important activist technology of the last five years is the mobile phone. The reasons for this are simple – for most of the world, mobile phone penetration vastly exceeds internet usage. (In China in 2005, there were 350 million mobile phone users, and 100 million internet users. In sub-Saharan Africa in 2004, there were 52 million mobile phone users and approximately 5-8 million internet users.) While analysts in the North talk about users receiving information on three screens – the computer, the television and the mobile – users in the South are usually looking at two screens, and users in rural areas of the South are looking at one: a mobile phone that might be shared by all the residents of a village.
Market estimates suggest that there are over 2 billion mobile phone users in the world today, heading towards 3.3 billion in 2010. The parts of the world where mobile use is growing the most quickly – the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia are markets where the mobile isn’t a replacement for existing land-line technology, but is allowing people to have a personal communications channel for the first time. 97% of people in Tanzania reported that they could have access to a mobile phone – their own, a friend’s or one they could rent – as compared to 28% who could access a land line. (A map of mobile phone coverage in Uganda from MTN gives you a sense for how thoroughly some nations have become connected via wireless technology.)
The only technology that compares to the mobile phone in terms of pervasiveness and accessibility in the developing world is the radio. Indeed, considered together, radios and mobile phones can serve as a broad-distribution, participatory media network with some of the same citizen media dynamics of the Internet, but accessible to a much wider, and non-literate audience. Interactive Radio for Justice, a participatory radio show in the Ituri region of the DR Congo uses SMS to let listeners ask questions about justice and human rights to a panel of Congolese and UN officials, who answer the questions over the air.
The questioners to Interactive Radio for Justice are anonymous. The producers ask callers not to identify themselves for fear that some pointed questions – “Are soldiers allowed to stay at my house and eat my food without paying for it?” – may lead to retribution. In general, the anonymity of mobile phones is one of the key reasons they’ve been so useful to activists. In the US, we consider most mobiles to be highly traceable – generally, mobile users have a phone number associated with a permanent address and a credit card. But mobile phones in most developing nations are sold on a pay-as-you-go basis. Some countries require registration of a phone’s SIM card using a validated ID, but most don’t, either for the SIM or for “top-up” cards. As a result, it’s not difficult for an activist to have a single phone with multiple SIMs, one which is closely correlated with her identity and one which might be used to send messages to organize a protest or promote a cause.
Anonymity makes these protests unusually difficult for police or other authorities to block. “Smart mobs” of activists, brought to demonstrations by text messages, have led to political change in the Phillipines and the Ukraine. In 2001, SMS messages about political corruption helped turn the tide against Joseph Estrada, and led to SMS-organized street protests and Estrada’s eventual ouster. (Filipino activists have organized subsequent text-based protests, many focused on lobbying for mobile phone user’s rights. The organization TXTPower started as a consumer rights’ organization and has now become active in broader political protest.) SMS messages in Ukraine helped mobilize tens of thousands of young demonstrators in the streets of Kiev in late 2004 to protest election fraud and demand a revote.
In both cases, calls to take to the streets spread organically – virally – with recipients forwarding the messages to multiple friends. Blocking the ability of a single phone to send messages would likely do little to stop the spread of the message. (Activists have discussed the wisdom of using SMS gateways, web-based services which can send SMS messages to hundreds or thousands of phones. An argument against using gateways is the fact that they are single points of failure that could be blocked by a government anxious to stop the spread of a smart mob message.)
To stop virally-spreading messages, concerned governments might order SMS networks shut down. Some Belarussian activists reported shutdowns of the SMS network in March 2006 to prevent activists in Minsk from making contact outside the capital and encouraging Belarussians in the countryside to come into the city. Similar accusations come from Ethiopian activists, who report that SMS was blocked during election protests in June 2005. Concerned about political text messages, the government of Cambodia declared a two-day “tranquility” period before governing council elections, shutting off SMS messaging and prompting accusations that the blockage was an unconstitutional limitation of speech. Observers from the National Democratic Institute report that the Albanian government attempted to block SMS throughout their network for a week before recent elections. Iran may have blocked SMSs sent from Internet gateways as a way of preventing “defamation” of candidates prior to elections in late 2006.
The Shanghai police have tried another technique for controlling SMS-spread demonstrations – they used SMS messages to warn potential protesters away from anti-Japan street protests. (The technique was a mixed success – the message from Shangai police was so ambiguously worded that some recipients took it as encouragement to protest.) Belarussian authorities attempted something similar during the October Square protests, sending SMS messages warning potential march participants about their health and safety if they appeared at marches, stating that “provocateurs are planning bloodshed”.
In smart-mob scenarios, mobile phones function as an impromptu broadcast network – if activists had access to radio stations with sufficient footprint, they could achieve similar goals by broadcasting information about rallies over the airwaves. Other activist uses of mobiles take advantage of the ability of mobile owners to create content as well as forwarding it. Activists with the pro-democracy Kefaya movement use mobile phones and their cameras to document demonstrations and other news events, including a government crackdown on Sudanese protesters in Cairo – they call, text or use MMS to send messages to the administrator of the Kefaya blog, which compiles reports into blog posts much as a newroom turns field reports into finished articles.
A dispersed group with mobile phones – especially mobile phones equipped with cameras – becomes a powerful force for “sousveillance“. Coined by Dr. Steve Mann, “sousveillance” refers to the monitoring of authority figures by grassroots groups, using the technologies and techniques of surveillance. The use of mobile phones to monitor the 2000 presidential election in Ghana is a good example of sousveillance – voters who were prevented from voting used mobile phones to report their experience to call-in shows on local radio stations. The stations broadcast the reports, prompting police to respond to the accusations of voter intimidation. Had voters called the police directly, it’s possible that authorities might not have responded – by making reports public through the radio, voters eliminated the possibility of police announcing that there had been no reports of voter intimidation. Similar techniques have been used in Sierra Leone, Senegal and even in the US – American voters used mobile phone cameras and websites to record reports of voting irregularities during the 2006 congressional elections.
Sousveillance has a way of trapping authority figures, even when they’re the ones holding the cameras. Egyptian blogger and activist Mohammed Sharkawy was beaten and sodomized while in police custody – his tormentors filmed the incident and threatened to humiliate him by posting the video on the Internet. The video, posted at sites like YouTube, has now become a document demonstrating the brutality of Egyptian police, leading to criticism by the US State Department of Egypt’s human rights record. In a future where most citizens carry cameras with them at all times and have the ability to spread them phone to phone, or by posting them to a website, there’s tremendous potential for sousveillance to serve as a check to people in power. (Needless to say, there are hundreds of more worrisome scenarios made possible by the same technology, including noxious phenomena like “happy slapping“.)
Mobiles are powerful because they’re pervasive, personal and capable of authoring content. An intriguing new dimension emerges as they become systems of payment as well. Kenyan mobile company Safaricom has introduced a new system allowing mobile phone users to send money to other users of the network – it’s called M-PESA and has moved from pilot to full-scale implementation rapidly. Once Vodaphone, Safaricom’s international partner in the project, makes it possible for people outside of Kenya to deposit money into the network, it’s likely that M-PESA will become a major tool for remittance as well as for cashless payment. Activists armed with M-PESA-type phones could do more than organize a dispered protest – they could fundraise, making it possible for groups of activists to fund the travel of an activist to a protest or the cost of leaflets. Similar projects, like Wizzit in South Africa, suggest that mobile banking is likely to become widespread in countries with a large “unbanked” population.
These mobile payment systems have a high degree of centralization and identification – M-PESA users have to register with Safaricom with a government ID. But other emerging payment via mobile systems look more like hawala, the informal money transfer system used through much of the Middle East and South Asia. Nokia anthropologist Jan Chipchase tells a story about Ugandan mobile phone users and a system called “sente”: A caller purchases mobile phone airtime cards in a major cities, then calls his home village – he reads the recharge codes to the person in town who owns a mobile phone, giving her the credits to use. She enters the credits into her phone (validating the transaction), then gives a large percentage of the value of the credits to the person of the caller’s choice, usually a member of his family. Systems like this allow for virtually untraceable money transfer, unless phone card vendors are forced to check identification before selling phone cards.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that the powers unleashed by the mobile phone can affect all sides of a political situation. Protests organized by SMS helped unseat Joseph Estrada in the Philippines and bring President Gloria Arroyo to power. When Arroyo found herself embroiled in a corruption scandal involving tape recordings of phonecalls to voting commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, one of the tools activists used to spread information was a ringtone. The ringtone featured a snippet of dialog between Arroyo and Garcillano and rapidly became one of the world’s most downloaded ringtones and spawning over a dozen remixed versions. The personal nature of mobile phones makes them the perfect venue for protest, even if the protest is as innocuous as having your phone chirp “Hello Garcia?” in the President’s voice every time you get an SMS. What the mobile giveth, it can taketh away.
Recommended resources for future reading:
Kiwanja – database of mobile phone-based technology projects