Archive for 2010

Mexico’s Mobile Monopoly

3 October 2010

I’m in Mexico right now, investigating the use of mobile phones and other new technologies by nonprofits, NGOs, and small civil society organizations in this country.  My research is only just begun, but I’ve already encountered one major barrier to small groups leveraging the expansive mobile network and innovating tools and platforms using mobile services.

Telcel is Mexico’s largest mobile phone operator, and for many in the country, the only option. Around 75% of all mobile subscriptions in the country are with Telcel– a bit like if Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile were one company in the U.S., but instead of Sprint as an alternative, you had three or four smaller companies. A formerly government-owned company, Telcel was sold into private hands just a few years ago, and while some users I’ve talked to report that coverage and service has gotten a little better, prices have gone way, way up.

As Samhir wrote on Thursday, part of what has driven sky-high adoption rates in many developing countries is vigorous competition between mobile operators, driving down prices.  In India, a 1-minute call costs about 7 cents (adjusted for PPP), and a text message costs the same. In Indonesia, voice is expensive (as much as 32 cents/minute), but sending an SMS costs only 3 cents. In Ghana, a text costs 7 cents, and in nearby Panama, where three robust mobile operators compete aggressively, it’s only 4 cents.

In Mexico, sending a text message with Telcel costs as much as 14 cents (again, adjusted for PPP), and for pre-paid subscribers (a group that includes most poorer people) the rates can be higher. Voice, meanwhile, can cost close to 50 cents per minute. Clearly, this is a serious barrier for adoption among poorer people, and a barrier for groups that may benefit from the network’s reach.

What’s more, when Carlos Slim and his América Móvil corporation took over Telcel from the government, they did so on the agreement that they would expand the network to cover all the many rural villages around Mexico, including those here in mountainous Oaxaca.  Progress has been halting at best.  Despite this, it’s not uncommon to meet people who have no mobile coverage where they live, and yet own a mobile phone.  They have one, they say, for when they travel into the city, or for the phone’s entertainment features. In fact, over 70% of Mexicans own a mobile phone. But the use of the platform has been limited.

While mobile has been tricky here in Mexico, internet growth has been very strong, with 19% year-on-year growth in the number of users, helping make Latin America the fastest growing region in the world for internet usage. Social networking, communication, and online entertainment are all big here, and e-commerce is beginning to make an impact.  As long as Telcel’s monopoly on mobile persists, we’ll likely continue to see internet as a stronger force in society.

Choosing Evils

20 September 2010

I’m in Budapest this week for a conference co-hosted by Google and Central European University– “Internet at Liberty 2010.” The highlight of this morning’s sessions was a “very short history of the internet and free expression” offered by Rob Faris of Harvard’s Berkman Center; I’d commend you to read Jillian York’s liveblog of that session if you’re curious. The highlight of the afternoon, and what I’ll reflect on, was a conversation looking at the challenges for the internet industry in dealing with the issues surrounding freedom of expression on the internet. In these questions of corporate policy lie much of the current struggle to ensure the free flow of information and freedom of expresion on the internet. And tension between these values and concerns of privacy, security and decency are driving much of the debate.

As Leslie Harris of Center for Democracy and Technology aptly put it in a comment, content hosts like Facebook are, in many ways, the “arbiters of free speech” in our technology-dense world. With the network becoming increasingly global, they often find themselves caught between protecting the value of free speech and obeying the rule of law– what’s free speech in one place might be libelous, or obscene, or just downright felonious somewhere else. So when one country comes to Facebook with a request that they remove some piece of content, Facebook has to make a choice. A choice that Lord Richard Allan, Facebook’s head of European Privacy, describes as choosing the lesser of two evils.

Illustrating one of the evils Facebook has chosen was the scandal earlier this year around the Facebook group “Draw Mohammed Day.” Despite the Pakistani government’s demands to eliminate the group, Facebok deemed it a legitimate expression of free speech. As the inevitable consequence, Pakistan blocked access to all of Facebook for a period of days. In the end, Facebook and the Pakistani government both earned the ire of different groups.

But there have been other instances in which Facebook has chosen to censor content– the conversation today took a zany turn today for a case study on breastfeeding. In the United States, it turns out, breastfeeding in public is against the law. And in compliance with the law, Facebook has taken down thousands of photos of women breastfeeding– including many photos taken outside the U.S., and submitted by users living outside the U.S. But because they’re accessible in the U.S., Facebook won’t host the photos; they could be sued if they did.

It’s certainly a curious position for a company to be in, making decisions about what constitutes free speech and what’s over the line. And it can surely become an uncomfortable position when they make a controversial call. But what’s the altnerative?  The role of the intermediary– Facebook, in this case– is one of the toughest questions for people working on these issues, and incorporates huge concerns about privacy and security. I’m looking forward to more of this discussion tomorrow.  Check back here for more in-depth recap and analysis…

(Unrelated, I was on the radio today– AM 1500 in DC– talking about digital diplomacy. Enjoy.)

New Paper on “Internet Freedom” & “21st Century Statecraft”

10 September 2010

Hot off the inter-presses today is a new paper from NDN & the New Policy Institute by yours truly looking at the State Department’s “21st Century Statecraft” and “Internet Freedom” initiatives. The paper is more overview than analysis– something I decided was necessary after reading the July essay on digital diplomacy in Foreign Affairs that I took down in a blog post and then delicately deconstructed for Foreign Policy. From the executive summary:

Not intended to be comprehensive or critical, this paper attempts to define and clarify these initiatives and the arguments supporting them, and offer a platform for further debate. These are new, evolving but crucially important issues, and informed conversation about the role of technology in our world is critical if these technologies are to be a positive force in history.

I mean, right? The hope is that this paper will be a resource for people new to these issues, and a fact-based starting point for further debate.  So here it is. Enjoy.

21st Century Statecraft, a Poor Choice of Words, and How Much that Matters

7 September 2010

I know I’m not the only one glad to have Evgeny Morozov back from the Belarusian forest and his poking, prodding skepticism back in the blogosphere– I missed having his posts as fodder to disagree with, and my blood pressure has felt a little low in recent months. His critique last week of Haystack, the much-ballyhood secret censorship-evading software developed by Austin Heap, though almost too snarky to take seriously, leveled serious criticism and raised good questions about a project that has received a lot of press and praise. But his latest contribution, The 20th Century Roots of the 21st Century Statecraft, is a little lite.

Morozov’s basic critique is, first, that the tech folks in the government are a little too chummy with the tech industry people. Fair enough. It is surprising that more people haven’t ended up in hot water for the very close relationships between a few select tech firms and the federal government. It may yet cause problems– both political and, as Evgeny points out, for the implementation of our foreign policy.

In the second half of his post, though, things get weird. Evgeny warns of ill-defined “spillover effects” that will follow from pursuing “21st Century Statecraft” and “Internet Freedom.” Because Twitter won’t solve all manner of non-digital foreign policy problems, he argues, these new strategies are likely to corrode the rest of foreign policymaking, and the State Departments new “utopian agenda” will distract from the real business at hand.

This doesn’t really make much sense, and I think Evgeny senses this, as he keeps backing away from his snarkier rhetoric, to the position that the real problem is a failure to communicate.  That is, his main issue seems to be that “Internet Freedom” and “21st Century Statecraft” are just bad labels. Which they are, I’d say. The phrase “internet freedom” has been widely hijacked to mean everything from Twitter-fuelled regime change to net neutrality; a more apt definition for the State Department’s stated ambitions would be “freedom of expression on the internet.” Bad name? Yeah, probably. Utopian agenda that will overwhelm all other forms of diplomacy? Nuh uh.

All this is made weirder by the fact that, in closing, Morozov pines for “A much more important and far-reaching global debate about the future of foreign policy in the digital era.” With her speech on Internet Freedom in January, Secretary Clinton probably did more to broaden the debate about foreign policy in the digital era than anybody else could have.  Yes, State’s work has spun off a lot of tangential, even unhelpful side conversations– that’s to be expected. But I’d say the sort of side-swipes Morozov takes at State in this post are equally unhelpful in advancing a broad global debate about international affairs in a digital age. Language matters, but getting hung up on a few bad labels doesn’t get us anywhere.

Verizon & Google Propose a Legislative Path to Preserve the Open Internet

9 August 2010

Well, everything our trusted news outlets told us last week was wrong.  Google and Verizon weren’t cooking up a back-backroom scheme to undermine the open internet, nor were their talks about placing shipping containers full of Google servers in Verizon’s parking lots, as a NYT op-ed suggested (I couldn’t tell if it was serious speculation or a joke at the expense of the rumor-hungry tech media). 

Verizon & GoogleAs it turns out, their announcement, which is only the latest in a year of cooperation between the companies on this issue, is simply a suggested legislative framework for Congressional action on net neutrality– and a very moderate one, at that. In March, Tom Tauke, EVP of Verizon, gave a speech here at NDN in which he made the argument that Congress needed to write new legislation, clarifying the government’s role in regulating the internet. With their joint proposal, Google & Verizon have waded deeper into the specifics of how that legislation could be written.

The proposal offers clear support for the fundamental principles of net neutrality: ISPs would not be allowed to discriminate against any legal content, applications, or devices, and would be required to be transparent in their network management practices. The FCC would hold regulatory authority over the internet, enforcing consumer protection rules on a case-by-case basis, and would have the power to execute on their widely-lauded National Broadband Plan. The proposal does, however, have two important carve-outs, which I will address in turn:

Wireless. Mobile broadband is exempt from the proposed net neutrality rules, with the exception of the transparency requirement. The wireless market, they argue, is both more competitive and less mature than the wireline broadband market, and because of that, ought not be subject to new regulation. I think this is compelling.  The U.S. wireless market is legitimately competitive, unlike the wireline broadband market. I, for one, have but a single unsavory choice for broadband at my home– and that’s in a major city– but everyone has at least four options of wireless carrier. And wireless truly is changing rapidly: 3G networks, rolled out in the middle part of the last decade, completely changed the way we use our mobile devices, and as 4G networks spread in the next year or two, I think we’ll see yet another revolution. 

This blog is always keen to point out that the future of the internet lies on mobile devices, and eventually, the mobile internet will be virtually indistinguishable from wireline broadband. It’s important that the Google & Verizon proposal doesn’t rule out future regulation of the wireless space. In the proposal, the GAO is tasked with monitoring the wireless space to ensure it remains competitive and open, and consumer protection groups must remain vigilant as well. But for now, the market is working well, and consumers have options. While that persists, and while we see where wireless innovation leads us, I think it wise to avoid new regulation.

Differentiated Services.” This is a more complex carve-out, and one that raises more questions than it answers. Google & Verizon describe a network parallel to the “public internet” that could host such services as “health care monitoring, the smart grid, advanced educational services, or new entertainment and gaming options.” The proposal explains that “Such other services would have to be distinguishable in scope and purpose from broadband Internet access service, but could make use of or access Internet content, applications or services and could include traffic prioritization.”

Critics of the plan worry that, despite assurances, this parallel network would serve as a loophole for ISPs to prioritize paid content at the expense of the free, open, “public” internet. That is a legitimate concern, and your support for this element of the plan will probably track with your trust that ISPs will be transparent and supportive of the broad principles laid out in this proposal. But I think the more important question is whether there is a role for the kind of services they describe, and whether there is a need for those services to run on a network separate from the “public” internet.

Global Mobile is a big booster of the role the global network could play in healthcare, education, energy, and other sectors. Connection technology could play a huge part in reducing healthcare costs, as has already been demonstrated around the world. Access to the world’s information will clearly be a crucial part of a 21st century education. And the smart grid– a necessary facet of energy reform in this country– will rely heavily on the broadband network. Is there a need to prioritize these types of information, and separate them from the “public” internet? Well, we don’t know because we haven’t tried.

The proposal puts the onus on the FCC to monitor these “differentiated services” and ensure that they’re not being used as an end-run around net neutrality rules. As in the mobile space, careful vigilance will be necessary to ensure this carve-out isn’t being exploited as a loophole. But provided these differentiated services don’t hamper the internet as we know it, there is ample room for ISPs to experiment with new services over their network, and help healthcare, education, energy, and other sectors innovate their way into the networked 21st century.

Bottom line: This is a serious contribution to a debate that has not always been sensible and reasoned.  It’s not the solution– just a compromise suggested by two of many stakeholders– and our policymakers will still have to make the final decisions. But I hope this proposal will provide critics on both sides a framework for more serious discussion.