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Draft Paper on Mobile Phones and Activism
Ethan Zuckerman, 11 Apr 07
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I’m giving a talk on activist uses of mobile phones in the developing world later this month. Prior to the talk, the organizers have asked me to submit a short paper on the topic - here’s a draft of what I’m planning on turning in, with the hope that you guys can offer some comments and make it better.

If you ask a US-based activist the most important technical development of the past five years, they’ll likely tell you about the rise of citizen media, the use of blogs and web community sites to disseminate information, organize events and raise money. Bloggers helped make Howard Dean a contender for the democratic nomination for president in 2004, and many of the people involved with his online campaign have gone on to develop increasingly complicated software, helping support efforts towards Congressional transparency as well as political organizing. Because blogs were such a visible manifestation of political discourse, they’ve been extensively studied and reported on, which leads to a sense of the importance of these media for the campaign’s impact.

Ask an activist from the developing world the same question and you’ll get a different answer: the most important activist technology of the last five years is the mobile phone. The reasons for this are simple - for most of the world, mobile phone penetration vastly exceeds internet usage. (In China in 2005, there were 350 million mobile phone users, and 100 million internet users. In sub-Saharan Africa in 2004, there were 52 million mobile phone users and approximately 5-8 million internet users.) While analysts in the North talk about users receiving information on three screens - the computer, the television and the mobile - users in the South are usually looking at two screens, and users in rural areas of the South are looking at one: a mobile phone that might be shared by all the residents of a village.

Market estimates suggest that there are over 2 billion mobile phone users in the world today, heading towards 3.3 billion in 2010. The parts of the world where mobile use is growing the most quickly - the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia are markets where the mobile isn’t a replacement for existing land-line technology, but is allowing people to have a personal communications channel for the first time. 97% of people in Tanzania reported that they could have access to a mobile phone - their own, a friend’s or one they could rent - as compared to 28% who could access a land line.

The only technology that compares to the mobile phone in terms of pervasiveness and accessibility in the developing world is the radio. Indeed, considered together, radios and mobile phones can serve as a broad-distribution, participatory media network with some of the same citizen media dynamics of the Internet, but accessible to a much wider, and non-literate audience. Interactive Radio for Justice, a participatory radio show in the Ituri region of the DR Congo uses SMS to let listeners ask questions about justice and human rights to a panel of Congolese and UN officials, who answer the questions over the air.

The questioners to Interactive Radio for Justice are anonymous. The producers ask callers not to identify themselves for fear that some pointed questions - “Are soldiers allowed to stay at my house and eat my food without paying for it?” - may lead to retribution. In general, the anonymity of mobile phones is one of the key reasons they’ve been so useful to activists. In the US, we consider most mobiles to be highly traceable - generally, mobile users have a phone number associated with a permanent address and a credit card. But mobile phones in most developing nations are sold on a pay-as-you-go basis. Some countries require registration of a phone’s SIM card using a validated ID, but most don’t, either for the SIM or for “top-up” cards. As a result, it’s not difficult for an activist to have a single phone with multiple SIMs, one which is closely correlated with her identity and one which might be used to send messages to organize a protest or promote a cause.

Anonymity makes these protests unusually difficult for police or other authorities to block. “Smart mobs” of activists, brought to demonstrations by text messages, have led to political change in the Phillipines and the Ukraine. In 2001, SMS messages about political corruption helped turn the tide against Joseph Estrada, and led to SMS-organized street protests and Estrada’s eventual ouster. SMS messages in Ukraine helped mobilize tens of thousands of young demonstrators in the streets of Kiev in late 2004 to protest election fraud and demand a revote.

In both cases, calls to take to the streets spread organically - virally - with recipients forwarding the messages to multiple friends. Blocking the ability of a single phone to send messages would likely do little to stop the spread of the message. (Activists have discussed the wisdom of using SMS gateways, web-based services which can send SMS messages to hundreds or thousands of phones. An argument against using gateways is the fact that they are single points of failure that could be blocked by a government anxious to stop the spread of a smart mob message.)

To stop virally-spreading messages, concerned governments might order SMS networks shut down. Some Belarussian activists reported shutdowns of the SMS network in March 2006 to prevent activists in Minsk from making contact outside the capital and encouraging Belarussians in the countryside to come into the city. Similar accusations come from Ethiopian activists, who report that SMS was blocked during election protests in June 2005. Concerned about political text messages, the government of Cambodia declared a two-day “tranquility” period before governing council elections, shutting off SMS messaging and prompting accusations that the blockage was an unconstitutional limitation of speech.

The Shanghai police have tried another technique for controlling SMS-spread demonstrations - they used SMS messages to warn potential protesters away from anti-Japan street protests. (The technique was a mixed success - the message from Shangai police was so ambiguously worded that some recipients took it as encouragement to protest.)

In smart-mob scenarios, mobile phones function as an impromptu broadcast network - if activists had access to radio stations with sufficient footprint, they could achieve similar goals by broadcasting information about rallies over the airwaves. Other activist uses of mobiles take advantage of the ability of mobile owners to create content as well as forwarding it. Activists with the pro-democracy Kefaya movement use mobile phones and their cameras to document demonstrations and other news events, including a government crackdown on Sudanese protesters in Cairo - they call, text or use MMS to send messages to the administrator of the Kefaya blog, which compiles reports into blog posts much as a newsroom turns field reports into finished articles.

A dispersed group with mobile phones - especially mobile phones equipped with cameras - becomes a powerful force for “sousveillance“. Coined by Dr. Steve Mann, “sousveillance” refers to the monitoring of authority figures by grassroots groups, using the technologies and techniques of surveillance. The use of mobile phones to monitor the 2000 presidential election in Ghana is a good example of sousveillance - voters who were prevented from voting used mobile phones to report their experience to call-in shows on local radio stations. The stations broadcast the reports, prompting police to respond to the accusations of voter intimidation. Had voters called the police directly, it’s possible that authorities might not have responded - by making reports public through the radio, voters eliminated the possibility of police announcing that there had been no reports of voter intimidation. American voters tried similar tactics using mobile phone cameras and websites to record reports of voting irregularities during the 2006 congressional elections.

Sousveillance has a way of trapping authority figures, even when they’re the ones holding the cameras. Egyptian blogger and activist Mohammed Sharkawy was beaten and sodomized while in police custody - his tormentors filmed the incident and threatened to humiliate him by posting the video on the Internet. The video, posted at sites like YouTube, has now become a document demonstrating the brutality of Egyptian police, leading to criticism by the US State Department of Egypt’s human rights record. In a future where most citizens carry cameras with them at all times and have the ability to spread them phone to phone, or by posting them to a website, there’s tremendous potential for sousveillance to serve as a check to people in power. (Needless to say, there are hundreds of more worrisome scenarios made possible by the same technology, including noxious phenomena like “happy slapping“.)

Mobiles are powerful because they’re pervasive, personal and capable of authoring content. An intriguing new dimension emerges as they become systems of payment as well. Kenyan mobile company Safaricom has introduced a new system allowing mobile phone users to send money to other users of the network - it’s called M-PESA and has moved from pilot to full-scale implementation rapidly. Once Vodaphone, Safaricom’s international partner in the project, makes it possible for people outside of Kenya to deposit money into the network, it’s likely that M-PESA will become a major tool for remittance as well as for cashless payment. Activists armed with M-PESA-type phones could do more than organize a dispered protest - they could fundraise, making it possible for groups of activists to fund the travel of an activist to a protest or the cost of leaflets.

The M-PESA system has a high degree of centralization and identification - users have to register with Safaricom with a government ID. But other emerging payment via mobile systems look more like hawala, the informal money transfer system used through much of the Middle East and South Asia. Nokia anthropologist Jan Chipchase tells a story about Ugandan mobile phone users: A caller purchases mobile phone airtime cards in a major cities, then calls his home village - he reads the recharge codes to the person in town who owns a mobile phone, giving her the credits to use. She enters the credits into her phone (validating the transaction), then gives a large percentage of the value of the credits to the person of the caller’s choice, usually a member of his family. Systems like this allow for virtually untraceable money transfer, unless phone card vendors are forced to check identification before selling phone cards.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that the powers unleashed by the mobile phone can affect all sides of a political situation. Protests organized by SMS helped unseat Joseph Estrada in the Philippines and bring President Gloria Arroyo to power. When Arroyo found herself embroiled in a corruption scandal involving tape recordings of phonecalls to voting commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, one of the tools activists used to spread information was a ringtone. The ringtone featured a snippet of dialog between Arroyo and Garcillano and rapidly became one of the world’s most downloaded ringtones and spawning over a dozen remixed versions. The personal nature of mobile phones makes them the perfect venue for protest, even if the protest is as innocuous as having your phone chirp “Hello Garcia?” in the President’s voice every time you get an SMS. What the mobile giveth, it can taketh away.

I’d love help from readers in sourcing some of these examples, especially the Ethiopian and Belarus SMS blockages. Evgeny, Andrew, can I get some help from you guys on finding these references?


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Protecting your privacy when using a mobile phone can be achieved, but there are numerous pitfalls if you are trying to outfox a repressive Government or anyone else with access to the core mobile phone network.

"Some countries require registration of a phone’s SIM card using a validated ID, but most don’t, either for the SIM or for “top-up” cards. As a result, it’s not difficult for an activist to have a single phone with multiple SIMs, one which is closely correlated with her identity and one which might be used to send messages to organize a protest or promote a cause."

This would be a reasonable protection of privacy and anonymity, when, for exmple, calling or sending SMS questions to the activists radio station phone-in, but it is no protection from the mobile phone company or the Government agencies who can demand the Communications Traffic Data from these companies.

Calls from multiple SIM cards swapped in and out of the same physical handset are trivially correlated together, since each mobile phone handest interaction with the network also sends the International Mobile Equipment Identifier (equivalent to the MAC address of an Ethernet card or chip).

These IMEI are nominally unique, and
are used primarily to prevent a free market in mobile phone handsets i.e. to lock in customers to a particular network.

There are often good commercial reasons for this, especially when mobile phone handsets are sold with an element of subsidy based on, say a yearly airtime contract.

Consequently, to supposedly reduce the attractiveness of mobile phones as targets for violent thieves and robbers. countries such as the United Kingdom make it illegal to re-programme the mobile phone IMEI, or even to offer to do so, as part of the stolen mobile phone blacklisting schemes.

Obviously this has had no actual effect on the number of violent street robberies, since there is still a ready overseas market for such stolen phones, and robbers who steal your money are also likely to steal your phone simply to prevent you from calling the police immediately.

The Communications Data Retention laws being inflicted on 450 million innocent citizens of the European Union by September this year, propose that the initial activation of a new SIM in a mobile phone handset is recirded, and the approximate physical location of this event is retained for at least a year after the mobile phone network no lnger has a valid business reason to retain such data.

Location Based Services are offered as a commercial third party added value service in some countries, but the inherent tracking of the approximate physical location of a mobile phone, even when it is not actually being used to make or receive voice, data or SMS calls, (the handset has to communicate periodically with the network base station transmitter masts, simply to ensure quality of service) is another factor which activists should be aware of, when organising a meeting.

The EXIF metadata embedded in camera phone still or video images can sometimes be useful in a "whistleblower" or "eyewitness" evidence situation, but it can also betray clues to the identities of the people taking the photos if it is published and re-published without being amended or erased.

See Spy Blog's hints and tips for whistleblowers, journalists and bloggers

See also blog which discusses some of the technical and ethical issues with the project to supposedly provide an anonymous, untraceable publication document publication infrastructure for dissidents and activists around the world, which must inevitably also make use mobile phones as well as internet connected computers, if it ever gets off the ground.

Posted by: Watching Them, Watching Us on 11 Apr 07

In her blog 'Baghdad Burning', River describes a raid on her neighbourhood last year by Iraqi security forces, commencing with a sudden blackout of all mobile phones. Don't know if it prevented 'undesirables' from mobilising, but it certainly alerted everyone that the raid was in progress.

The Raid

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 11 Apr 07

West Papuan Activist Released from Jail by SMS

Great article! It reminded me of a case last year (2006) when a friend of mine - an indigenous West Papuan activist was arrested by Indonesian police on the West Papua/Papua New Guinea border.

As a former political prisoner and activist he was known to police. To make matters worse he had a number of sensitive documents contained in a flash drive on his person when he was arrested. He was also not well with a bad bout of malaria. Things were not looking good. The police stripped him and threw him in a cell. However, before doing so he was able to send an SMS message out to his local and international network alterting us to what had happened.

When he was transferred to the capital, Jayapura, a few hours later he was able to use his phone again. This time he was able to sms his location and through a sympathetic insider obtain the landline and mobile phone number of the senior officer at the Police Station. I remember getting the texts. I had just got off a plane in Australia from Canada where I had been attending a training with 2 other West Papuan activists. I forwarded the message together with Indonesian language instructions asking people to contact the police in Jayapura directly alterting them to the fact that he was a person of international concern, inquiring about his health and requesting an independent doctor and lawyer. The police were bombarded with calls. All this happened between getting off the plane and catching a train home! Other people around the world who were in his network also sprang into action.

Once at home in front of the computer another friend and I contacted Amnesty International in London.

24 hours after being arrested he was free. My friend believes this is because of the power of his transnational network. A network activiated by sms from a jail cell in one of the most remote corners of the world.

Hours after he was released Amnesty International contacted us agreeing to take him on as a political prisoner and initiate a worldwide urgent action.

It was wonderful to be able to tell Amnesty that he was already free.

This is not an isolated incident. It is fair to say that the majority of human rights information I and other solidarity activists receive first comes through text messages. In a place where the international media is banned, this information conduit is invaluable.

Posted by: Jason MacLeod - Institute for Papuan Advocacy and Human Rights on 12 Apr 07

Cell phone scale is also a scale that may introduce affordable solar and dynamo power around the world.

For instance, in Afghanistan, NATO forces are distributing solar/dynamo AM/FM/SW radios. If the solar/dynamo can charge a cell phone or batteries as well as the radio then a low voltage DC electric network is possible.

Posted by: gmoke on 12 Apr 07

In the last Sierra Leonean presidential elections a US NGO Search for Common Ground helped organise local journalists and radio stations to monitor progress of the election, by positioning journo's with mobiles at polling stations and counting stations across the country they were able to collate and broadcast the developing election results far more quickly than the official system, this boosted confidence in the system, as the public felt there was now much less chance of votes getting "lost" as they made their through the counting system, and it reduced the circulation of wild rumours and mis-information which start flowing in the absence of hard information. It must of taken a lot of hard work, but it helped make that election a success in a country, with virtually no democratic history, emerging from a decade long civil war which had wrecked the country's infrastructure and institutions.

Posted by: James on 13 Apr 07

Sort off topic, but I just found this on the Good Magazine Blog:

Google: Earth To Darfur,8599,1608968,00.html?imw=Y

Google is teaming with the Holocaust Museum to bring images of devastation in Darfur in the hopes of raising awareness. Resolution is so high that you can see burned houses. We knew there was more to Google Earth than trying to find people having sex on the beach or looking at your house and trying to figure out when exactly the satellite was overhead.

Posted on April 11, 2007 by - Morgan Clendaniel

Posted by: joshua wiese on 13 Apr 07

Great post.

From a Sri Lankan perspective, I've been interested in the use of mobile phones for peacebuilding, conflict early warning and after the tsunami of 2004, their potential uses in humanitarian aid relief delivery, coordination and collaboration. I have also proposed that the theory and practice of what called Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) makes better use of mobile phones.

You may be interested in some of my posts on my ICT4Peace blog that deal with these issues further, and corroborate that which you enumerate above. Critically however, the political context and the regulatory framework within which mobiles phones are used overwhelmingly determines their use & effectiveness as tools of active political engagement, mobile commerce and social activism.

There are also fascinating new developments such as real time GIS on mobile phones ( that show us today what will be commonplace tomorrow. One of my most frequented posts, on simple ideas for ICT for Peacebuilding ( lists mobile phone projects as a central foundation of a means through which democracy can be secured and strengthened.

Please read:


(the last post explores whether mobile phones, and by extension, communications, are a basic human right)

Best regards,

Sanjana Hattotuwa

Posted by: Sanjana Hattotuwa on 28 Apr 07



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