Tag Archives: Mobile Activism

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