Tag Archives: Mobile Activism

New Course on Digital Democracy (Updated)

As mentioned in a previous blog entry, my colleague Joshua Goldstein and I are teaching a new full-semester undergraduate course on Digital Democracy. The course is being offered as part of Tufts University‘s interdisciplinary Media and Communication Studies Program.

The course will address the following topics:

  • Introduction to Digital Democracy
  • American Democracy
  • Global Democracy
  • Media and Democracy
  • Guest Speakers: Digital Democracy
  • Bloggers Rights
  • Digital Censorship and Democracy
  • Human Rights 2.0
  • Digital Activism
  • Digital Resistance
  • Digital Technology in Developing World
  • Class Presentations

The course wiki along with the syllabus is available here. We regularly update the syllabus so do check back. Feedback on the syllabus is also very much welcomed.

We are particularly keen for suggestions vis-a-vis recommended material (websites, online videos, links, books, papers etc.) and in-class activities.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Zimbabweans turn to Blogs and SMS

The Associated Press reports that Zimbabweans are increasingly going online and using SMS to “share stories of life and death in a country where independent traditional media have been all but silenced, and from which reporters from most international media have been barred.” Zimbabwe’s bloggers are mainly opposition activists who “provide valuable independent information and can even make the news.” Some additional excerpts of interest:

Harare-based Kubatana is a network of nonprofit organizations that runs a blogging forum. The forum relies on 13 bloggers in Zimbabwe, who e-mail submissions to an administrator who posts them to the site. The network also reaches beyond the Web by sending text messages to 3,800 subscribers.

In late June, the “This is Zimbabwe” blog started a letter-writing campaign against a German firm that was supplying paper for the sinking Zimbabwean dollar. After about a week, the international media picked up the story and the company, Giesecke & Devrient, announced it would stop dealing with Zimbabwe.

Another typical posting simply lists names of victims of political violence, each accompanied by one sentence on how the person was beaten to death.

In many cases it’s impossible to tell who is doing the postings because the risks are so great. Government eavesdroppers are believed to be roaming the Web and intercepting cell phone calls, especially after a law was passed last year allowing authorities to monitor phone calls and the Internet. Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga said the legislation was modeled after counter-terrorism legislation in America and the U.N.

Only the state-run TV and radio stations and The Herald, a government newspaper, provide daily news in Zimbabwe. There are no independent radio stations broadcasting from within the country. Journalists without hard-to-come-by government accreditation find it hard to operate.

For those who are online, near-daily power outages, followed by power surges, can make the Web an inconsistent means of communicating and gathering information. Cell phone service is also inconsistent at best; it can sometimes take hours to send text messages.

SW Radio Africa, a station based outside London that broadcasts into Zimbabwe, sends texts to 25,000 listeners a day, and they are adding about a thousand numbers each week. And it’s not just one-way. The radio station has a local phone number in Zimbabwe so listeners can send text messages or leave voicemail messages without long distance charges, and then someone from the station can call them back. Radio stations broadcasting into Zimbabwe from outside are forced to broadcast on multiple frequencies to avoid being jammed by the government.

A recently imposed import duty on newspapers charges a 40 percent tax for independent voices like the newspaper The Zimbabwean, published abroad and shipped in and available on the Web. Weekly circulation has recently dropped from 200,000 to 60,000 and the paper has stopped publishing its Sunday edition.

See my post here for information on the Dial-Up Radio project in Zimbabwe.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Dialup Radio for Communication in Conflict Zones?

I blogged about Tad Hirsch‘s TXTmob project back in April and spoke to him this week about his Dialup Radio project. The intuitive web-based interface allows anyone to upload brief radio-style audio files to make them available via phone along with the option of using different menu options. For example, one could broadcast news about electoral-related violence in difference cities and towns across Zimbabwe: “For today’s news on Bulawayo, press 1, for news on Gweru, press 2,” etc.

Dialup Radio has been designed specifically to meet the needs of human rights activists in the developing world. The system can be installed locally or may be operated across national borders. Particular attention has been paid to system security and to minimizing costs of operation

The Dialup Radio project is currently being used in Zimbabwe where independent radio stations have been outlawed. Other tactics include copying broadcasts on cassette tapes and disseminating the tapes widely among taxi and long-distance bus drivers across the country. Indeed, the best place to get accurate reporting in Zimbabwe may very well be from a taxi driver. I certainly found this to be the case while in Nairobi following the December 2007 presidential elections and the ensuing violence.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Creating Covert Channels for VoIP

Steganography is the art of hiding messages by embedding them in ordinary communications. The word is Greek for “covered, or hidden writing”. The term can be traced back to Herodotus (in 440 BC) who mentions two particularly interesting examples (summarized on Wikipedia):

Demaratus sent a warning about a forthcoming attack to Greece by writing it on a wooden panel and covering it in wax. Wax tablets were in common use then as re-usable writing surfaces, sometimes used for shorthand. Another ancient example is that of Histiaeus, who shaved the head of his most trusted slave and tattooed a message on it. After his hair had grown the message was hidden. The purpose was to instigate a revolt against the Persians.

Steganography is distinct from cryptography which obscures the meaning of a message, but it does not conceal the fact that there is a message. In today’s digital age, steganography includes concealment of one’s and zero’s within data files. An ordinary-looking image file, for example, can include embedded messages that can go unnoticed unless someone is actively looking for a code, much like invisible ink. As has been noted, the advantage of steganography over cryptography that messages do not attract attention to themselves, to messengers, or to recipients.

And now, two Polish scientists with the Institute of Telecommunications in Warsaw have just revealed that they are developing a steganographic system for VoIP networks. This may eventually be a more effective way for activists and social resistance movements to communicate and evade detection. All that we need now is the software and interface to make this communication as simple as two clicks of a mouse. Any takers? Of course, repressive regimes could also use the same tactic, and I realize this presupposes Internet connection and access, but it’s a start.

Patrick Philippe Meier

It’s the Economy 2.0, you Geek

The Chinese government spent 8 years and $700 million to build the Great Firewall, a system that monitors and censors Internet communication. As Wired recently noted, “virtually all internet contact between China and the rest of the worlds is routed through a very small number of fiber-optic cables that enter the country at only three points.” This coupled with Cisco technology enables the Chinese authorities to physically monitor all incoming and outgoing Internet traffic.

The Great Chinese Firewall is not designed to be invincible, however. In fact, one of the reasons why the Chinese government has to “allow some exceptions to its control efforts—even knowing that many Chinese citizens will exploit the resulting loopholes” is to “keep China in business” (Wired). For example, “many of China’s banks, foreign businesses and manufacturing companies, retailers, and software vendors rely on virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxy servers […] to survive” (The Atlantic). VPNs and proxy servers also “happen to be” two dependable alternatives to evading government censorship. “This is the one area in which China literally cannot afford to crack down. Foreign companies are the backbone of its export economy, and without VPNs they just couldn’t do their work” (Wired).

Wall

The same is true of other ICTs such as mobile phones and SMS text messages. More than 20 million SMS messages are sent every day in Iran alone. Furthermore, the Washington Post writes that,

“As each new technology has spread, the region’s authoritarian governments have tried to fight back. They have sent censors to license fax machines and block dissident Web sites, and they have pushed government-friendly investors to buy and manage satellite channels. But the Gulf’s monarchies have not yet figured out whether or how to control text message channels. If they do, they will sorely disappoint the region’s profit-engorged cell phone companies, whose stock prices have soared as phone and messaging use has exploded. About 55 percent of Kuwaitis and a third of Saudis now own cell phones, according to mobile service providers, and growth rates show no sign of slacking.”

There is increasing empirical evidence that economic growth is in part a function of greater access to global information flows (economics 2.0). However, authoritarian states that wish to exploit the economic possibilities of the information revolution will have to make increasingly difficult choices: “any state that permits Internet or cellular phone use for commercial possibilities will face difficulties in perfectly censoring undesirable communication or halting all attempts at political co- ordination” (Drezner 2006).

So the real question is not whether the repressive state is more technicaly savvy. No, the salient question is how much longer the coercive state can in fact afford to enforce control given the state’s growing dependency on the information economy? For example, The Atlantic writes that, “about 70 percent of Internet users in the United States have used the Web to shop. How will the proliferation of credit cards in China affect the government’s ability to monitor Internet activity?”

It’s easy to slip into technological determinism and focus entirely on James Bond super gadgets like the Great Chinese Firewall. But come on, it’s the Economy 2.0, you geeks!

Patrick Philippe Meier

It’s the Economy 2.0, you Geek

The Chinese government spent 8 years and $700 million to build the Great Firewall, a system that monitors and censors Internet communication. As Wired recently noted, “virtually all internet contact between China and the rest of the worlds is routed through a very small number of fiber-optic cables that enter the country at only three points.” This coupled with Cisco technology enables the Chinese authorities to physically monitor all incoming and outgoing Internet traffic.

The Great Chinese Firewall is not designed to be invincible, however. In fact, one of the reasons why the Chinese government has to “allow some exceptions to its control efforts—even knowing that many Chinese citizens will exploit the resulting loopholes” is to “keep China in business” (Wired). For example, “many of China’s banks, foreign businesses and manufacturing companies, retailers, and software vendors rely on virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxy servers […] to survive” (The Atlantic). VPNs and proxy servers also “happen to be” two dependable alternatives to evading government censorship. “This is the one area in which China literally cannot afford to crack down. Foreign companies are the backbone of its export economy, and without VPNs they just couldn’t do their work” (Wired).

Wall

The same is true of other ICTs such as mobile phones and SMS text messages. More than 20 million SMS messages are sent every day in Iran alone. Furthermore, the Washington Post writes that,

“As each new technology has spread, the region’s authoritarian governments have tried to fight back. They have sent censors to license fax machines and block dissident Web sites, and they have pushed government-friendly investors to buy and manage satellite channels. But the Gulf’s monarchies have not yet figured out whether or how to control text message channels. If they do, they will sorely disappoint the region’s profit-engorged cell phone companies, whose stock prices have soared as phone and messaging use has exploded. About 55 percent of Kuwaitis and a third of Saudis now own cell phones, according to mobile service providers, and growth rates show no sign of slacking.”

There is increasing empirical evidence that economic growth is in part a function of greater access to global information flows (economics 2.0). However, authoritarian states that wish to exploit the economic possibilities of the information revolution will have to make increasingly difficult choices: “any state that permits Internet or cellular phone use for commercial possibilities will face difficulties in perfectly censoring undesirable communication or halting all attempts at political co- ordination” (Drezner 2006).

So the real question is not whether the repressive state is more technicaly savvy. No, the salient question is how much longer the coercive state can in fact afford to enforce control given the state’s growing dependency on the information economy? For example, The Atlantic writes that, “about 70 percent of Internet users in the United States have used the Web to shop. How will the proliferation of credit cards in China affect the government’s ability to monitor Internet activity?”

It’s easy to slip into technological determinism and focus entirely on James Bond super gadgets like the Great Chinese Firewall. But come on, it’s the Economy 2.0, you geeks!

Patrick Philippe Meier

GSM versus People Power in Africa

Let’s force GSM tariffs down. Join a mass protest switch off ur fone on fri sept 19 ’03. They’ll lose millions. It worked in US & Argentina. Spread Dis txt.

It’s been close to 5 years since the Great GSM Boycott in Nigeria. Some claim that up to 75% of mobile phone users switched off their phones on 9/13 in widespread protests that were regarded as much of a charge against the Nigerian state as it was a statement of protest vis-a-vis the country’s corrupt telecommunication companies. Many disaffected users even drew parallels between the activities of the phone companies and those of oil companies which operate in the country’s delta region and are known for conniving with the Nigerian state.

Following the boycott, the companies set off on a charm offensive to win back their clientèle after acknowledging that a substantial number of customers did switch off their phones. The companies did give in to a number of customer demands but found other ways to compensate for the drop in revenue (by shifting additional costs to users). An important positive impact of the boycott was the noticeable increased determination of the National Communications Commission to enforce the sector’s basic regulations.

One question in particular came to mind when reading Odabare’s account of the Great Boycott: If a tactic as basic as switching off a mobile phone apparently worked in the US, Argentina and Nigeria, then why haven’t we seen additional copycat tactics since that have proved successful?

Patrick Philippe Meier

iRevolution or Control-Alt-Delete?

The Information Revolution has brought us iPods, iPhones and iRevolutions. What are iRevolutions? They are what SmartMobs do. Think about it, what do you get when you give activists engaged in nonviolent social resistance increasingly decentralized, distributed and mobile technologies? That’s right, an iRevolution. Just like iPods and iPhones have empowered their owners by rendering them more autonomous and by increasing the number of buttons they can press, so has the Information Revolution empowered local activists and transnational networks—albeit to circumvent control and censorship by coercive states, i.e., by pressing their buttons.

Clearly, the information revolution has dramatically reduced the costs of networked communications. However, does this enable civil society to more effectively mobilize action, influence centralized regimes and to get out of harm’s way when the regimes decide to crack down? Or are states becoming increasingly savvy in their ability to control the flow of information?

The general consensus based on a recent study is that coercive states now have the upper hand in using ICT to control and suppress politically sensitive information such as human rights abuses. However, the literature on the information revolution and its impact on state-society relations is not consistent. Current studies suffer from two important limitations that cast sufficient doubts on the conclusion that coercive states have the upper hand in the information revolution.

First, the terms “information revolution” and “Internet” are used interchangeably throughout the literature even though: (i) the majority of studies generally focus on the Internet exclusively, and (ii) the information revolution includes additional means of communication, such as mobile phones. In other words, the literature focuses almost exclusively on assessing the effect of the Internet instead of evaluating the aggregate impact of the information revolution on antagonistic state-society relations.

Second, the two terms are purposefully not differentiated on the basis that the predominant feature of the information society is the spread of the Internet. While this is true of the most industrialized democratic societies, it is not the case for the majority of developing countries experience conflict and/or repressive regimes. Indeed, mobile phones are the most widely spread ICT in developing countries and also the technology of choice for activist networks in these countries.

So who will win this cat-and-mouse game? I don’t know. But then again, that’s why I’m doing a dissertation on this topic.

Patrick Philippe Meier

iRevolution: Reporting Live and Undercover?

While video footage of the riots in Tibet did leak out, it was nevertheless limited and there were often delays. The Nokia N95, however, can stream live video from the phone to the Internet. So imagine, writes Andy Carvin, “if the protestors were able to webcast their protests – and the ensuing crackdowns – live over their phones using China’s GSM network? The video would stream live and get crossposted via tools like YouTube, Seesmic and Twitter, spreading the content around so it can’t be snuffed.”

Andy asks: what about the need for securing anonymity during transmission? Surfers can hit the waves whenever they choose to since software such as TOR allows them to remain anonymous by causing their online communications to bounce through a random series of relay servers around the world.

For example, let’s say you’re in Beijing and you publish a blog the authorities don’t like. If you just used your PC as usual and logged into your publishing platform directly, they could follow your activities and track you down. With Tor, you hop-scotch around: your PC might connect to a server in Oslo, then Buenos Aires, then Miami, then Tokyo, then Greece before it finally connects to your blogging platform. Each time you did this, it would be a different series of servers. That way, it’s really difficult for authorities to trace your steps.

The question Andy poses is when (or whether) Tor or related software projects will (or can) adapt their services to meet the mobile needs of activist networks and nonviolent movements? Taking a different angle, the question I would raise is whether video encryption might be render the need for anonymity less pressing?

Several techniques are available the most and the one that makes the most sense here given our security concerns is the “Cut & Rotate” approach. This scrambling method cuts each scanned line into pieces and reassembles them in a different order. The advantage of this technique compared to others is that it provides a compatible video signal, gives an excellent level of data security, as well as good decode quality and stability. The disadvantage, however, is that the technique requires specialized scrambling equipment. That said, a good example of this system is the Viewlock II & micro-Viewlock II:

The micro-Viewlock II is battery operated with low current drain and is designed for highly covert applications, such as body-worn video surveillance. So my question is whether hardware rather than software such as Tor might be a potential path to consider?

Patrick Philippe Meier