How The World Is Faxing, Facebooking, And Group Messaging Its Way To Freedom

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Photo: ap

Sarah Lacy’s recently published book, “Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky: How the Top 1% of Entrepreneurs Profit from Global Chaos,” took her to 11 countries and numerous interviews with entrepreneurs “from the front lines of countries stirred by turmoil and teeming with billions of people who have nothing to lose and everything to gain by embracing global investment and technology.”As we watch the events unfolding in the Middle East, we are indeed observing a chaotic, dangerous world. But in the midst of the chaos, there are the brave, the organised, and the connected. There are those who are using technology to rally support for protests, and there are those who are providing that technology. There are citizen journalists who are providing footage that makes its way to CNN, and there are professional journalists who have given their lives while reporting on revolution in the Middle East.

Certainly, we cannot minimize the complexity and levity of the events happening at this moment – but we can examine several technologies which have disrupted order around the world by connecting people in volatile times. Technology innovation, like music or wine grapes, often grow best when germinated within oppressive conditions. 

Egypt: Google’s employees made headlines for flocking to Facebook, but the company’s biggest story of the decade may have come from its employees using Facebook for change 

We haven’t heard of a disruptive force within Google in the years since the company went IPO. Google, now one of the biggest companies in the world, attracted disruptive leaders in its buildup but has suffered from an employee exodus to startup land and Facebook. This is why it’s interesting that Google exec Wael Ghonim made global news when he unofficially led the Egyptian revolution by using Google rival Facebook to spread the news and mobilize the masses. Wael was a moderator for the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page, which was dedicated to the young Egyptian man who witnesses reported being beaten to death by police officers in Alexandria. Said’s death and the creation of the Facebook page led to an international outcry to investigate the incident further, as well as scrutiny by human rights groups.

But Ghonim went further – he was also an organiser of the protests in Egypt, which he has called ‘Revolution 2.0″. Ghonim and other 2.0 revolutionaries used social media sites like Facebook to send out information about protests; however, when they announced locations for protests on the page, he reported that they shut down Facebook. As he told the LA Times: “But I had a backup plan. I used Google Groups to send a mass mail campaign to all these people in order to tell them here are the locations and please spread it among your friends And everyone knew eventually.”

“So, definitely technology played a great role here. You know, it helped keeping people informed, it helped making all of us collaborate.”

Google also introduced a service called “Speak To Tweet” following their acquisition of SayNow. The service allows people to leave a voicemail on a phone number and Speak to Tweet instantly tweets the message. While it’s not clear if the service was actually adopted in Egypt, Google made a major statement by promoting the service via corporate PR channels.

On the Google blog, Ujjwal Singh, the co-founder of SayNow and AbdelKarim Mardini, a Google product manager in the Middle East and North Africa, wrote about the service:

“Like many people we’ve been glued to the news unfolding in Egypt and thinking of what we could do to help people on the ground. Over the weekend we came up with the idea of a speak-to-tweet service—the ability for anyone to tweet using just a voice connection. We worked with a small team of engineers from Twitter, Google and SayNow… to make this idea a reality. It’s already live and anyone can tweet by simply leaving a voicemail on one of the international phone numbers and the service will instantly tweet the message using the hashtag #egypt. No Internet connection is required.”

Ghonim’s role in Revolution 2.0 led to his being detained for 12 days by the Egyptian government, where he was kept blindfolded the entire time. He was released, thanks to pressure by Google and influence within the Obama administration. Many companies call in favours to their government but this was an important use of corporate influence, if such a tactic is to be celebrated.

There have been and still are many companies which want nothing to do with political movements, and refuse to become involved with employees who take a stand. Google is not one of those companies – they stood by their employees, helped them get out of detention, and leveraged several different technologies to enable mass communication and coordination.

Libya: When love equals liberty

Mawada is a Muslim dating site (think Match.com of the Middle East) which was recently used for an alternative purpose: to unite revolutionaries in Libya, so that they might avoid detection by the Libyan secret police, who monitor Facebook and Twitter.

ABC News recently described how when Omar Shibliy Mahmoudi “exchanged sweet nothings on the Muslim dating site Mawada, it wasn’t for love but for liberty.” His profile on Mawada was called “Where Is Miriam” and he pretended to be looking for love. Since the site does not allow men to communicate with other men, other revolutionaries created profiles as women to contact Mahmoudi.

ABC News reports: “On the site, the revolutionaries used poetry laced with revolutionary references to gauge support and make initial contact. Then they had detailed follow-up conversations via text message and Yahoo Messenger. The phrase ‘May your day be full of Jasmine,’ for example, is a coded reference to what’s been called the Jasmine Revolution sweeping the region… If the undercover ‘lovers’ wrote ‘I want love,’ it meant ‘I want liberty,’ Mahmoudi said. They also communicated in code the number of their comrades supporting the revolution. The five Ls in the phrase ‘I LLLLLove you,’ for example, meant they had five people with them. If a supporter wrote, ‘My lady, how I want to climb this wall of silence. I want to tell the story of a million hurts. … But I am lost in a labyrinth. … Maybe we can meet on Yahoo messenger,'” it told the writer to migrate the chat to Yahoo Messenger so as not to raise the suspicion of the monitors.
Mahmoudi “thought that 50,000 supporters would be enough to take to the streets. But using various aliases on the dating site, he said he ended up with 171, 323 ‘admirers’ by the time Libya’s Internet crashed.”

In Libya and other countries, when the internet crashes or government imposes a ban, revolutionaries still find a way to work around the restrictions, even using the antiquated process known as “faxing” in order to spread word to protesters.

India: Where group messaging is a riot threat

Lost in the chaos of the Middle East is the paranoid nature of democracies such as India. Although Indian democracy has successfully pre-empted the need for a full scale revolution since independence, it’s disconcerting that the government has the power to shut down social media.

Here in India last fall, government officials took measures in advance of a highly-controversial judgment regarding a centuries-old dispute around the Babri mosque and the land around it, an area which had been claimed by both Hindu and Muslim groups over the years. Babri Mosque had been established in the 16th century by order of Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India. In 1992 it was destroyed by Hindu mobs, sparking some of the worst communal riots in independent India’s history, in which 2,000 people died.
Fearful that Muslim / Hindu riots could ensue again, the communications and information technology ministry issued an order banning bulk SMS  services in late September 2010. With this ban, we realised that even in the world’s largest democracy, government was capable of shutting down the country’s largest social network, SMSGupShup (Hindu for chit-chat), which is larger than Facebook India, Twitter India and Google’s Orkut.

The ban signaled that the Indian government sees the power of mobile messaging to organise politically. Though some regard SMS as archaic, its simplicity and ubiquity makes the media an ideal way to mobilize. In the end, the judgment ruled that the land should be divided among three groups, one Hindu and two Muslim, and violence did not ensue as feared.

Whether a revolution is fuelled by a fax machine or Twitter, by Facebook or dating sites, by Google or an SMS-based group messaging services, one unifying thread remains: the indomitable human spirit. Governments may shut down a social networking site temporarily, but they cannot shut down mankind’s ability to innovate and communicate beyond bans and blocks. And so, as the human spirit endures, so too will innovations in technology which should open the doors to a more democratic process worldwide.

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