Archive for 2009

Lessons from Iran: Using Facebook to Become A More Effective Autocracy

7 December 2009

Six months after a fraudulent election threw Iran into spasms of violence and exposed to the world the true autocratic nature of the Islamic Republic, a new round of protests and suppression have arisen around National Student Day– a holiday to mark the killings of three students by the Shah in 1953. Thousands of Iranian students gathered at Universities in Tehran and elsewhere today, where they chanted slogans against their government. As in June, the government sent in the paramilitary Basij militias, who used tear gas, electrical truncheons and stun guns to break up the protests. Robert Mackey at the Lede has been offering the most regular, comprehensive updates of the protests as they have unfolded.

Iran’s oppression hasn’t gotten much attention since the summer’s protests concluded, but the government has continued their sinister crackdowns– and they’ve gone global. The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday on a series of interviews conducted with Iranians living in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere. Many of the interviewees who had spoken out against the regime reported having received threatening messages via e-mail or Facebook, and some were intimidated with threats against their family members still living in Iran.

Five interviewees who traveled to Iran in recent months said they were forced by police at Tehran’s airport to log in to their Facebook accounts. Several reported having their passports confiscated because of harsh criticism they had posted online about the way the Iranian government had handled its controversial elections earlier this year.

An Iranian engineer in his 30s who lives in a German-speaking area of Europe, and who attended protests there this year, described having his passport, cellphone and laptop confiscated when he later traveled to Tehran. He said he was called in for questioning several times, blindfolded, kicked and physically abused, and asked to hand over his email and Facebook passwords.

Iran ProtestersInterrogators showed him images of himself participating in protests in Europe, he said, and pressed him to identify other people in the images.

“I was very scared. My knees were trembling the whole time and I kept thinking, ‘How did this happen to me?’” he said recently. “I only went to a few demonstrations, and I don’t even live in Iran.”

He said he was told he was guilty of charges including attending antiregime protests abroad, participating in online activities on Facebook and Twitter that harmed Iran’s national security and leaving comments on opposition Web sites. He said he was given a choice: Face trial in Iran, or sign a document promising to act as an informant in Europe.

He says he signed the paper, took his passport and left Iran after a month. He says he has received follow-up emails and phone calls but hasn’t responded to them.

As I wrote the other day, this kind of thing is a chilling reminder that these incredibly powerful technologies can be badly abused, and in the hands of a government with bad intentions, can be turned on their head in the service of oppression, rather than freedom. To take a historical perspective on this phenomenon– much as I dislike Nazism/Hitler analogies, FDR wasn’t the only one who mastered radio to his political advantage…



Whither the Digital Divide?

1 December 2009

Digital Divide?We can’t say that the digital divide is gone, but it certainly is changing its shape, thanks to trends in mobile broadband adoption. NPR ran a story on Morning Edition today that reported on a Pew Hispanic Center study on the intersection of race and mobile use. I’ve written about this stuff before, and Simon covers it in his Dawn of a New Politics presentation– really interesting.

The data show, as you can see in the chart at left, that blacks and Hispanics use broadband and other features on their mobile phones at consistently higher rates than whites. The report offers four explanations for this phenomenon:

  1. Cost. In our networked world, everyone who can have broadband access wants it.  Mobile broadband is cheaper than in-home broadband.  Blacks and Hispanics tend to be lower-income, and so gravitate toward mobile.
  2. Youth. Young people tend to be early adopters. Black and Hispanic populations skew young.  ‘Nuff said.
  3. Network Effects: As more people in these communities adopt the technology, the effects are compounded as they pull in their families and other social networks.
  4. Convenience: Particularly for Hispanics, who tend to be more itinerant  and more in touch with family and friends abroad, connecting to the network via mobile makes a lot more sense than in-home broadband.

Is this a good thing? Surely.  In-home broadband connections are prohibitively expensive for many Americans, and in a world where it’s increasingly a necessity to be connected, it’s hugely important that there is a lower-cost option for lower-income people. 

But is this the end of the digital divide? Surely not. Blacks, Hispanics, and lower-income Americans do still lag in computer use and in-home, fiber broadband connections.  While mobile broadband is helping to level the playing field, there is a degree of functionality that is lost on a cell phone.

No more than about 40% of black and Hispanic users access the internet on their phones– reflective in part, no doubt, of the lower usability of mobile web– and that remains a critical indicator.  Until every parent can view their child’s grades online, and every student can learn to use the web for research, and every car buyer can search the internet for the best loan rates– until then, the digital divide will remain a reality we need to challenge. We should be encouraged by this report, but not complacent.

(h/t JS)



Mobile Technology: Good, Bad, or Just a Tool?

30 November 2009

Much is made of the power of mobile phones.  Indeed, much is made of them right here on this blog.  But, as with all seemingly magical tools of development/healthcare/education/whatever, there is a tendency to get swept up in the zeitgeist and to think of the mobile phone as a silver bullet. And as with all things, it’s not. In fact, we can’t think of the phone, or the internet, or any other technology as inherently good or bad. They’re simply tools. New, powerful, disruptive tools– but just tools.

Bear with me while I illustrate my point by weaving a thread through two articles published recently in faraway parts of the world:

  • Yesterday, a Sri Lankan newspaper covered a recent leak that the government intelligence services had been tapping the phones of an influential former general and his associates. The tapping was motivated not by any security concern, but by political concerns– the general represented a powerful opposition group.
  • An opinion piece in the African Business Daily last week looked at the “pros and cons of increased access to mobile phones” in Uganda. The “pros” were the usual litany of access to information and services– but it was just that: access. (The “cons” had mostly to do with Uganda’s highly regressive taxation scheme, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

Just a toolThe point here is twofold.  First, mobile technology, like any other technology, is subject to misuse and abuse by those in power. Part of NDN’s big argument about new technology (and the reason that we got involved in this space in the first place) is that new technolgoies are changing society in a similar way to how radio changed the world in the 1920s and 30s. But just as FDR used the radio to speak directly to the American people, Hitler used radio to speak to Germans.

As we see in Sri Lanka, and as we saw in Iran, mobile technology can be used equally by those on either side of any struggle. This is by no means an argument against the technology itself– as I said, it’s neither inherently good nor inherently bad– but simply a reminder that we must be watchful for the same evils as ever.

Second, in Uganda as everywhere, access to a phone and a network is never the end in itself. The power of the technology lies in the information you can access and the services you can take advantage of. That’s why we see our mission at Global Mobile as greater than simply expanding access to mobile technology– even moreso, we’re thinking about how we can leverage this technology to improve lives and socities around the world. Technology and services– one is useless without the other.



India Bans Pre-Paid Mobiles in Kashmir – Security or Suppression?

10 November 2009

For eight years, the Indian government dragged its feet until, in 2003, it finally permitted mobile phones in conflict-torn Kashmir. Intelligence officials had feared that Kashmiri and Pakistani militants would use the phones to plan attacks on Indian army outposts throughout the region, but in ’03 they relaxed the ban, and the past six years have been the most peaceful since the conflict began in 1989. Causation? Probably not. But correlation, anyway.

Srinagar Cell PhoneLast week, the Indian government walked back on technological freedoms in Kashmir, banning pre-paid mobile connections. In Kashmir, as in much of the developing world, pre-paid is a popular option thanks to its known costs, and low commitment; the new ban will take phones out of the hands of 3.8 million Kashmiris. Unsurprisingly, hundreds of Kashmiris have taken to the streets of Srinagar, the capital city, to protest the law in recent days.

The stated reasons for the prohibition are that mobile vendors are not conducting proper background checks on new subscribers, and that militants are using mobile phones to detonate bombs– a practice observed in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. I suspect the actual reasons are considerably more Machiavellian.

Srinagar is one of the most heavily-militarized cities in the world, and the dense presence of Indian troops has led to frequent clashes between Kashmiri civilians and the military. As the BBC documented earlier this year, young Kashmiris have been using their cell phones to bear witness to the disproportionate, often unprovoked violence of the Indian army. With a camera phone in every hand, every citizen is a journalist, and the explosion of photos, videos and other first-hand accounts of the violence in Kashmir has brought images of the violence to the world.

What’s more, the Indian intelligence services have met with some success finding and killing militants by monitoring the cell phone conversations of Kashmiris. The consistency and higher background-check requirements for post-paid cell phone plans makes it much easier to monitor those subscribers.

It’s my strong suspicion that the pre-paid ban in Kashmir has more to do with suppressing critical citizen media and monitoring civilian phone conversations than it does with preventing phone-bomb attacks. The ban consists of a suppression of basic freedoms and a violation of privacy in an already repressed state. Further, the government is denying citizens a valuable tool for economic development and access to the global ICT network– increasingly a fundamental right in itself.

FD: I spent some time reporting in Kashmir. My views are certainly informed by that experience. My reporting is published here.