Mobile blackouts and the poor

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By Flickr user Vlastula

Watching the unfolding events in Egypt, as I am dedicated to working with our partner organisations on their policy work, I am compelled to pause and think about the implications. While development agencies are obviously not in the business of “revolution”, but we are concerned with “development,” economic and social development.

So what happens when you cut off telecommunications to a country of over 83 million people, many of those living in poverty? As a friend of mine on Twitter observed, like a banal household appliance, the internet “has an off switch.” The definitive blog entry on the “switch off” asked last night:

What will happen tomorrow, on the streets and in the credit markets? This has never happened before, and the unknowns are piling up.

We watched with trepidation in September, as pre-paid mobile customers were shut off in Mozambique, in an attempt to dampen protests by the poor against increases in the cost of living. People still found ways to communicate about protest, much of it was word of mouth. The government made concessions after deadly rioting and things returned to “normal”.

At times like these, when we are often rightly focusing our outrage and indignation on civil rights and free speech, I hope we do not forget to ask: what is the impact of communications blackouts like these on the poorest?

SMS is a crucial tool for access to market information and for coordination in small-scale commerce. Loss of a couple of days trading for microentrepreneurs and traders can devastate them, eroding years of hard work and undoing plans for the future.

While we focus on the kind of social organisation behind protest, we can overlook that other forms of social organisation are crucial to driving informal and internal economic dynamism. The kind that will foster global economic recovery.

The major players in telecoms in Egypt would be asleep at the wheel if they are not quite concerned over lost revenue.

Business as usual will not work when it comes to new pressures and political interference in telecommunications. The social and political aside, passivity on the part of companies will both hurt their profits and economic development for the poor. Instead we need creative thinking about just and appropriate responses when the new lines of communication which we depend on so much are suddenly threatened.  More attention needs to be paid to the issue of regulatory frameworks and rights of consumers, especially with regard to their protection from harm.

Vodafone Egypt just released a micro-statement claiming they had no other option than to comply with government demands to cut service. It will be interesting to hear more from them and other operators as the situation unfolds.

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2 Responses to “Mobile blackouts and the poor”

  1. The Rise of Digital Resilience « Aptivate | A Blog for ICT4D Says:

    […] to write some thoughts about Digital Resilience for a while and reading Janet Gunter’s blog post about Mobile Blackouts and the Poor has prompted me into finally doing […]

  2. Matteo B. Says:

    well, it seems technology is always revolutionary. particularly ICTs as they allow people to share information. revolutionary! we notice it when it comes to breaking the silence of dictatorship (and btw, how comes media do not share the voice of people subject to dictatorships in the absence of violent revolts? maybe “old media” are not so keen on freedom? maybe sharing suffering condition in “normal times” does not sell? maybe “old media” just reflect the power structures of “western civilisation”? maybe…). anyhow, there’s another interesting point in ICTs and it is about their role in connecting people at the grassroots levels. connecting local communities, entrepreneurs, social and economic actors. in brief: people in their daily activities. particularly, this attribute is very interesting if people are poor people, in places without much (if any) government service support (and therefore government control), in areas dealing with the damages of the global economy rather then the benefits. people living those particular locations, should better ask themselves: are ICTs potential enablers for local social and economic exchanges that are alternative to the main-stream capitalist model(s)? can ICT support small-scale changes and innovation, and experiments, towards a truly sustainable growth (in terms of human and social development), which is fair to people and respectful of the environment? can ICT-based infrastructures be gradually implemented from the bottom, with low investments, and therefore lower power pressures from central governments and big industries? can we start thinking in this direction, when we talk about development, instead of pushing grandiose ideas for developing countries, ideas that have clearly failed in our beloved “western societies”? that would be very nice, indeed.

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