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Protest Text
Emily Gertz, 10 Sep 04

txtmob.gifAt both recent political conventions -- July's Democratic National Convention in Boston, and last week's Republican gathering in New York -- activists used text messaging to inform each other about gatherings, police actions and changes in plans.

Not too radical--we've already seen flashmobs come and go as the meme of the moment, and there are text message broadcast services. But how to get a single message to a lot of other activists, avoid spam, and maintain user privacy?

That's where txtmob comes in.

Last week Patrick Di Justo hit the streets to cover technology angles on the protests for the New York Times, and reported back on txtmob's NYC debut:

To sign up for TXTMob, users enter their cellphone numbers into the TXTMob Web site, www.txtmob .com. To thwart spammers, the system uses opt-in registration: a machine-generated authorization code is sent to each registered number and must be re-entered into the Web site to activate the registration. TXTMob is designed to carefully maintain members' privacy, not surprising given why most are using TXTMob.

The software was not intended for everyday mobile socializing. It was created as a tool political activists could use to organize their work, from staff meetings to street protests. Most of the people using it are on the left: of the 142 public groups listed on the TXTMob site, the largest are dedicated to protesting the Bush administration, the Republican Party or the state of the world in general.

...TXTMob had its first major New York workout on the evening of Aug. 27, during the Critical Mass, a loosely organized bicycle ride through Manhattan by anti-Republican protesters. From the start of the ride, participants in a TXTMob group called comms_dispatch sent a slew of messages alerting one another to route changes and warning of traffic snarls. As the ride neared its end, comms_dispatch buzzed with reports of arrests from Second Avenue to 10th Avenue, and around St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery.

On Aug. 29, two days after she took part in the Critical Mass ride, a woman from San Francisco who identified herself only as Josie sat outside St. Mark's and read text messages on her cellphone. Describing herself as a "voracious" TXTMob reader, she credited the service with helping keep her safe during the ride.

"It told me where the cops were and where I could rest," she said as she thumbed through the TXTMob messages from that day's United for Peace and Justice march that were arriving on her cellphone at the rate of about one per minute. "It brought me here."

There are many first-person accounts of txtmob's performance at New York Indymedia.

txtmob users with T-Mobile service found their service mysteriously blocked for several hours on August 31, a major day of protests in the city (noted on boingboing, smartmobs and elsewhere). It's not clear that this was a targeted outage, or just a symptom of heavy system usage.

Whatever the reason, this again demonstrates a weakness inherent to using networks of information and connection -- like Chinese Wikipedia -- for purposes perhaps at odds with the powers that be: it's still just too easy for someone to throw the off switch.

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I saw a comment from a TMobile engineer on one of the various techy sites (may have been picked up by BB) claiming that the outage was the result of the TMobile systems flagging the volume of traffic as signifying spam, and blocking it.

Given the number of times that I've seen mail blocked by overly-aggressive spam filters (including my own), and considering that a friend in the UK finds his entire net connection gets locked out for a couple of hours when he videoconferences -- again, apparently due to automated systems flagging a large amount of traffic as being spam-in-transit -- I am not altogether dubious about this TMobile claim.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 10 Sep 04

I find that pretty plausible, myself, frankly, and overall, the chatter on the protest lists seems to be more about "send a complaint to T-Mobile," rather than hyping a conspiracy angle.

I should really amend my last line to read:

Whatever the reason, this again demonstrates a weakness inherent to using networks of information and connection -- like Chinese Wikipedia -- for purposes perhaps at odds with the powers that be, or simply in the hands of technologists with other priorities: it's still just too easy for someone to throw the off switch.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 10 Sep 04

one more weakness - smart law enforcement agencies can 'join' the 'txtmob' to monitor protesters' efforts, just as the opposite is true. I wish I had a link, but I definitely remember reading some accounts of the really quite effective job the NYPD did of keeping the peace during the RNC which mentioned that they were using the text bulletins to inform their own operations.

Posted by: John Atkinson on 13 Sep 04



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