MobileActive in the Economist

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Nov 29, 2007

The Economist, November 29, 2007 reports on the recent event in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Nov 29th 2007 | SÃO PAULO
From The Economist print edition

Cats, Mice, and Handsets: Protesters and governments are mastering the tricks of the mobile trade

EXCERPT: At a recent conference in São Paulo on “mobile activism”—a term that embraces humanitarian work as well as protest—there was much talk about how to “go beyond text” when using mobile phones. And it became clear that exuberant practice was galloping ahead of theory.

One recent craze has been the use of political ringtones. Once again, Filipinos are in the vanguard. Since 2005 that country's best-known tone, especially among youngsters exasperated by corruption, has been “Hello Garci”—a snatch of taped conversation in which President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo seems to be chatting with Virgilio Garcillano, her election organiser, ahead of the 2004 poll that confirmed her in office. In Hispanic countries, meanwhile, the latest fashion is a royal voice saying “Why don't you shut up?”—the recent outburst of Spain's King Juan Carlos to President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela at a summit in Santiago, Chile.

Mobiles are also being used in more sophisticated ways, to capture and disseminate images that were never supposed to see the light of day. Witness, a non-governmental organisation that aims to record and denounce human-rights abuses, is one pioneer. Instead of merely posting verbal reports, it invites visitors to its website to the “Hub”—a collection of harrowing video clips, often uploaded from mobiles, which depict cruelty in action. On the “Egypt” country page, there are grainy images showing torture in a prison.

For now at least, expense and technological problems make it hard to organise any international mobile-based protest. The lack of full interoperability between mobile systems means that borders are still difficult to cross....

In Pakistan the equipment used by local authorities was too cheap to block the flow of text messages. This helped Pakistani protesters to stay informed about sympathetic rallies taking place in America and Britain—and to give the outside world a glimpse of ordinary people's reactions to the state of emergency....In some places, like Belarus, the authorities have refined the art of blocking mobile coverage in specific places—such as protest venues. They have also turned text messages to their own uses: by using the state-owned network to spread warnings that a rally is likely to end in bloodshed.

For hard-pressed activists in search of new techniques, help may come from an unlikely quarter. Google, the internet giant, has offered $10m for the most innovative new application for mobile phones. The offer extends to ideas that bring humanitarian benefits or contribute to economic development. Mobile activists have never lacked imagination, and many of them are already hard at work, thinking of clever new uses for those little devices—mostly rather crude, five-year-old models—that have become part of daily life in the poorest parts of the world.