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Draft paper on mobile phones and activism

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:
Smartmobs weblog
Mobile Active
Kiwanja – database of mobile phone-based technology projects

33 thoughts on “Draft paper on mobile phones and activism”

  1. Ethan, Fahamu has just completed a comprehensive draft on mobile phones for social justice in Africa. I’ve only skimmed, but it looks like it would be of use to you. Apparently they’re presenting it at Pan Africa Network conference in Nairobi, end of May – perhaps you can request a draft?

  2. Hi Ethan

    We’ve been in touch before, but never quite managed to meet up yet! I’ve been doing a bit of a mini-speaking tour lately from Stanford, talking to organisations (for-profit and non-profit) about mobile use in international conservation and development. In terms of sources of information, you could try my online Mobile Database (http://www.kiwanja.net/database/kiwanja_search.php) which contains an increasing number of articles, projects and reports on mobile use for social benefit. I have a couple of presentations on my Links/Downloads page, but suspect you’re already ahead of me in this respect – mine are usually just for general audience interest. If I can be of any help then don’t hesitate to get in touch. I’m at Stanford until early June. Ken

  3. Hey, Ethan — I am sure you are watching http://www.mobileactive.org? We are pushing out as many stories from the network of practitioners using mobile phones for social change as we can, most recently in the form of strategy guides for social change activists (www.mobileactive.org/guides) and on the blog and our mailing list. Let me know if you want to be in touch with anyone posting there. We’ll also have a gathering of movileactivistas in Sao Paulo in November; in conjunction with mobilefest there. Lots of exciting things happening in the field of mobile activism!

    Katrin, NTEN: The Nonprofit Technology Network and http://www.mobileactive.org

  4. For mobile phone-based money transfers and banking services, South Africa might be a better example. The WIZZIT bank is totally mobile-phone based, with no brick & mortar establishments. The Philippines is also a good example. Send me an email that I can reply to (last time I tried to email you your spam blocked it) and I can send you a paper I wrote on mobile-phone money transfer with sources if you want it.

    adrian dot r dot martin at gmail

  5. Hi Ethan,

    We were recently running an election observation mission in Albania where one of the two main phone companies blocked our SMS gateway provider in the week prior to the election. (The motive was unclear but likely political.) Our SMS provider, however, was able to re-route the traffic through a different gateway, allowing us to proceed.

    This happened twice, each time shutting down one of the available routes. We made the last routing change on the Saturday before the Sunday election on the (correct) guess that nobody would be around on the weekend to shut us down again. I have no idea how long these gateways remained blocked, but our provider was very accommodating and didn’t seem to mind burning up their routes for us.

    Of course, this wouldn’t have helped at all if the government had shut down the entire network…

    Neil Laslett, NDI

  6. Ethan,

    I’m struggling to find anything in English. Here’s one account in Russian: http://news.extra.by/view/polit/152314/

    It does state that the mobile phones were not working at least in the October Square area, where all protests took place. I’ve asked around, somebody would find a reference in English I am sure.

    Also make sure to check out http://www.data.minsk.by/belarusnews/032006/318.html

    It’s in English–and states how the authorities were sending SMS warning of blood and brutality during the rallies, urging everybody not to go (reportedly, all users of the mobile networks got this message).

    hope this helps.


  7. Thanks, everyone – these resources are very helpful. Evgeny, even Russian citations are great – it helps me document that the blocks took place… The message from the authorities warning people not to go is a great detail – very similar to the Chinese experience I talked about in the paper.

    Katrin, very glad to see so many international projects on MobileActive. Planning on adding this and the Kiwanja sites, plus the sites Ndesanjo suggested to my del.icio.us tags…

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  9. Ethan,

    I was myself at the October square during the protests in March 2006 in Belarus and I did not count on the cellphone to work at all. It did, however, so I’d say that the authorities targeted only a limited group of individuals whose phones were disabled.

    Regarding: “SMS warning of blood and brutality during the rallies” – I received those messages too. Its funny that they sent these messages long before the election day, trying to keep people away from simple meetings with the candidates which posed no threat to anyone whatsoever.

  10. Ethan: great essay: just a couple of thoughs:
    – concerning the network block, it’s maybe interesting to note (as a sidebar) that similar thinking is present in the minds of Western governments, too: after the London attacks on July 7, 05 the law enforcement agencies considered shutting down the mobile network, I guess because they were afraid that cell phones could be used to detonate bombs or similar (what they don’t realize is that, in crisis moments, cell phones are the best alert tool for people, and shutting down the network would just add to the distress and panic). There has been a timid debate about this in the UK.
    – talking about digital cameras and videocameras in cell phones, take a look at Peter Gabriel Witness.org new “video advocacy” initiative, which will involve both a site to disseminate this kind of information and workshops to train people to do this effectively:
    – also, maybe it’s worth to put a caveat to say that political activism using mobile phones (and particularly SMS messaging) happens also in developed countries. In Italy for example last year SMS were used to disseminate widely manipulated information about a politician:

  11. A very thorough outline of the telecommunications topography and some great case studies. I think what I’m interested in now is a bit more on the implications of mass access to mobile communication. How is sousveillance (great neologism!) going to transform global politics?

  12. Great post & great idea, appealing for info–here’s a translation of the relevant portion of the newspaper article that Evgeny gave you in #8 above (the rest is about the demonstration itself–the end part is about the phone service):
    On October Square in front of the Palace of the Republic, where the Belarus opposition has gathered, the mobile connection has been turned off. A half hour ago the Belarussian carriers stopped working, and then a little later, so did the Ukrainian ones, including UMS. Mobile telephones continue to work beyond the square. Because many opposition sites that carry news from Belarus have been blocked. Internet users can also get real-time information about events in Belarus on the Live Journal runner “Belarus Elections” http://by-ua.livejournal.com/, http://community.livejournal.com/by_vybary2006/

  13. one more translation, this of the link in Evgeny’s 12 April link (#12):

    Aleksandr Dautin, BDG, Delovaya Gazeta: “The Greater the Number of Opposition, the Worse the Connection?”

    On 19 March connectivity on October Square in the capital did not work during an unsanctioned demonstration because of the large concentration of subscribers. That was the explanation given by Deputy Minister of Communication and Informatization, Ivan Rak, for the inability to connect with demonstrators.
    In his words, connectivity problems frequently occur during mass actions, especially in Minsk, where 70% of the mobile subscribers live. At the same time, the deputy minister stressed, his ministry had taken no special measures to block signal on October Square. Further, in Ivan Rak’s words, the Ministry of Communication and Informatization has nothing to do with the shutting off the phones of opposition politicians and journalists that occurred in the days following the presidential election. “Maybe some of them ran out of money and they couldn’t pay for their phone service, and maybe some of them had their phones break down,” speculated the official.

    At the same time, deputy head editor of the newspaper Narodnaya Volya [People’s Will] Svetlana Kalinkina – whose mobile phone for some reason “vanished” from the list of subscribers to one of the phone companies during the 25 March demonstration, called such assurances simply amusing. “In the first place, even if a subscriber’s account is running out of money,” Svetlana Kalinkina said, “ you can still talk a little longer on that phone. In the second place, the phone doesn’t say “Please check the number you are calling.” And in the third place, my phone worked in the morning on 25 March. It couldn’t find a signal in the afternoon, fivce minutes after the journalist Pavel Sheremet was arrested, and then after 8 PM it started working again.”

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  23. I liked the little bit of anonymity I had and usually despised it when friends would get up from a nice dinner to answer their cell phones. It didnt benefit the matter that most of my friends were spending between twenty and forty pounds every month to cover their cell phone bills; the only way I could afford to pay that much for a phone was if I decided to stop eating for a month or two.

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