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By Dr Pieter Streicher, MD of BulkSMS.com. Uploaded on: 06 June 2011.
Today the early warning for a government in trouble seems to be when the rulers in question clamp down on electronic communication, especially Social Media and SMS. We’ve seen it happen across the African continent and further afield, starting with Mozambique and India in 2010, and then this year in Egypt, Tunisia and Cameroon. In fact Ethiopia got the ball rolling back in 2005, with a two-year SMS ban after election violence.
According to the sociologist 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
Modern communications allows each individual to broadcast information via a
variety of media, in this way routing around any blocks in the system.
We saw this with the birth of Ushahidi during the Kenyan elections in 2008 when
the government banned broadcasting. Ushahidi used SMS to collect information
from people on the ground, which it then compiled and distributed via the
internet to create a coherent picture of events. When internet access was
disrupted in Egypt, Google launched a “speak-to-tweet” service that allowed
Egyptians to tweet by leaving a voicemail.
So for non-democratic governments, anything short of a total ban on
communications is ineffective because information will find a way to flow. But
thanks to the extent to which electronic communications underpins both business
and society, an outright ban would cripple a country. Banking would fail,
orders would not be processed and billing would be impossible. In fact, the
entire business environment of any country depends on electronic communication.
Ironically governments often raise awareness of electronic communication as a
tool for activism by trying to control it. In Cameroon, the Biya regime banned
MTN from offering an SMS-to-Twitter service in March in an attempt to prevent
Egypt-style protests it claimed were being incited from abroad. However,
according to reports, most Cameroonians were unaware the SMS-to-Twitter service
even existed before the ban, and the ones who did were using it for IT or
At Davos earlier this year, underlining the significance of the bans on
electronic communication, United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon,
accused the Egyptian government of treading on the democratic principles of
freedom of speech and freedom of association when it cut internet access ahead
of planned protests.
Electronic communication, in all its shapes and guises, is here to stay.
Information continues to be the lifeblood of business, society and government
around the world. The fact that undemocratic governments continue in their
attempts to control this medium, despite the economic costs, is testimony to
the political power of electronic communications, especially SMS and Social