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By Dr Pieter Streicher, MD of BulkSMS.com. Uploaded on: 01 May 2011.
Today, access to high-tech communications is accepted as integral to modern life. When the ability to communicate using a digital communication channel such as SMS is banned in a country for political reasons, people inside and outside that country take umbrage to the denial of services. Yet, these attempts by governments to limit communications are an indication of the power of mobile and Internet based technologies to help foster revolution.
Recent political events in North Africa bear witness to this, where SMS and
social media services were disrupted due to government actions that aimed to
create a digital mass communications blackout. Many social activists took these
acts as signs of undemocratic governance and lent their voices to calls of
For the most part, interventions on the part of a state to limit the use of
digital communications are seen as infringing on individuals’ freedom of
expression and the censoring of what filters into civil society and the
mainstream international media. When a government turns to sending SMS messages
using mobile networks infrastructure, many citizens consider this broadcasting
of propaganda as spam.
The denial of public access to SMS by states is not new in the mobile era.
Ethiopia instituted a two year ban on SMS services in 2005 to block the
opposition political party from using SMS to canvass for support. In September
2010, Mozambique authorities forced a short suspension of SMS services to limit
the mobilisation of people during food price protests. The Indian government
banned bulk SMS services in September and then again in October 2010 to silence
dissenting views relating to the religious use of land addressed in the Ayodhya
Yet, it is 2011 that will probably be known as the year high-tech social
activism came of age. In January, some Egyptian citizens reported blocked SMS
services as protests against the Mubarak government escalated. In February, the
Egyptian authorities used their telecommunications regulations to send
pro-government messages out to citizens via Vodafone’s network. In the same
month, to the south, Uganda issued mobile operators with instructions to
intercept and block a list of keywords in SMS messages that were seen by
government officials as fostering election violence. During the Cricket World
Cup in March, India again banned bulk SMS services as a precaution to curb
possible violence when India played Sri Lanka in the final. The Cameroonian
government intervened in March by blocking a MTN SMS-to-Twitter service in the
face of fears that North African new media leaks would impact on its politics
via an expatriate Cameroon community. Commentators on this latter intervention
were taken aback, as not only was this communication service not widely used in
Cameroon, its primary use was in supporting IT and agricultural-related
The picture that emerges from all these examples is that high-tech
communications have new prominence in the political life of certain countries
where civil liberties have been curtailed or politically motivated violence was
feared. In the contexts of political turmoil such as Egypt and Tunisia digital
communications such as SMS offer a channel of mobilisation and protest unique
to the information age. According to Manuel Castells, author of Communications
Power (2009), “The roots of rebellion lie in exploitation, oppression and
humiliation. However, the possibility of rebelling without being quashed
immediately depends on the density and speed of mobilisation and that depends
on the ability created by the technologies which I have classified as mass
This idea of mass self-communications is helpful in understanding how in a
networked world the difficulty the modern states have in suppressing
information flows from the ground about social and political injustices. One
tool that helps visualise this is Ushahidi, a crisis mapping tool that uses the
Internet to display aggregated information collected via SMS. This is a
valuable tool in contexts where broadcasting of usual news channels is banned
due to political reasons by a government.
Yet, there is a catch-22 situation for governments that do institute bans on
SMS during times of political turmoil. There is a direct impact on the economy
of the country and the ability for key sectors, such as banking, to deliver
notification services that are dependent on digital communications. While
specific figures for the mobile sector are not available, it was estimated that
the Egyptian economy lost $18 million a day during the government’s ban on
telecommunications and Internet communications over a five day period. This
figure did not include those economic impacts on secondary business sectors
such as e-commerce, tourism and call centres reliant on high-tech