Ethan Zuckerman today has a very important post on the Ghanaian elections and monitoring of these elections by cell phone and Internet-enabled citizens. The election is expected to be super well-attended, fair and open. This is in no small measure due to the prevalence in Ghana of digital bridging--ubiquitous cell phones and SMS messaging, well over a hundred Internet cafes in Accra, the capital. Widespread use of satellite-based--and thus uncensorable--Internet connections to the outside world, and a thriving ecosystem of Internet entrepreneurs, using, among other things, Hotmail and Yahoo! mail and instant messaging to stay in touch with the world at large.
And not to mention that in Ghana FM radio is nearly universal, playing in cabs, cafes and nearly everywhere else. Free, spirited. And Ghana also has a thriving free press.
This is in contrast to Sudan, which has censored radio and press, and among the lowest penetration of phones and cell phones, and almost no Internet access. Only the Sudanese military, their proxies the Janjaweed, and the Chinese military overseeing the Sudanese oil fields enjoy high technology communications capabilities.
What is the connection between bridging the digital divide in developing and/or repressive nations, and improving human rights?
Digital access promotes witness, and witness makes it less likely that the external world will miss the early signs of a repressive crisis. In East Timor, for example, cell-phone-based, Internet-feeding activists gave the world a way to hear the crisis moment-to-moment. Today's phones could enable the world to see, as well.
More important, digital access promotes self-awareness within a society. In Khartoum, the government has been able for years to convince part of the population that it is not carry out a genocidal campaign in other far-flung parts of the country, despite doing this for more than a decade in the South, and more than a year-and-a-half in Darfur.
One of the things we need to do for Sudan, as our movement becomes longer-term and more like the campaign to free Burma, is focus on bridging the digital divide and opening up citizen-to-citizen communications. Sudan is increasingly a Chinese client state, as is Burma, so this will not be easy. Chinese know how to help the Sudanese keep digital access suppressed. China has well-established, if often hidden from the world, interests in Sudan and Sudanese oil, and will work hard to protect these interests and their client, the current Sudanese government.
On the other hand, access can be increased with enough creativity and will. Ethan Zuckerman was part of the scene in the early days in Ghana, when seeds of change were planted. Perhaps we need a communications-oriented Geek Corps now for Sudan.
Perhaps one way to increase access is to use the Sudan-based humanitarian organizations to introduce Internet access and cellular or portable-phone-based near-cellular phones. The use of international organizations as key early users for open communications systems has precident in other situations. In other developing nations these organizations have often been supporters and early customers of land-line, cell phones and Internet access, bringing down the cost for other users and helping to bridge the digital divide. The Soros foundation/Open Society Institute has established free radio, micro-transmitter-based citizen stations, in many other nations, and often these stations are initially supported by paid public service advertising by the humanitarian organizations.
I think we need to find a way to expand citizens communication in Sudan and especially Darfur, both to improve local coordition, as the Grameen Phone Village Phone Program has done in Bangladesh, and to deepen access to and from the outside world. This sort of initiative could start in the south of Sudan, in areas controlled by rebels associated with John Garang, and it could also start in Chad, where cell phone services and other radio-based communications could reach into Sudan..
The comparison between Ghana and Sudan suggests an approach to
action on Darfur and Sudan, an action that could harness the talents of
the high technology community around the world. We could do an "open
source digital bridges movement" for Darfur and Sudan. Our goal could
be numbers of people and villages connected with open, uncensored,
affordable methods of local and international communications
technology...This is the sort of thing that readers of Passion of the
Present know about and can do. Few of us are doctors who can sign up
with MSF, and few of us are soldiers and peacekeepers. But many of us
are, almost be definition, techonology-based communications activists.
Let me know what you might have to offer, at either firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
This weekend is the Internet and Society Conference at Harvard. The conference is free but already over-subscribed. However, there is a workshop day on Saturday that can accomodate more folks, and that is the most open of the days. There is a working session on Global Internet activism. I will be there, as will Ethan Zuckerman, Rebecca McKinnon and others. So come join us if you can. If you cannot come physically, join us on the web and/or by email, here or on the INS site. See you!
Finally, if you are attending the conference and will take part in action for Darfur and Sudan, consider wearing a green ribbon to signify to others your interest. Then others can find you, and you will help spread "social permission" (Yossi Vardi's term) to discuss Darfur and Sudan. I will be doing so, so if you see a green ribbon, feel free to come up to me and talk about action for Darfur and Sudan.
In fact, maybe our campaign could be called the "digital green ribbon campaign" for Darfur and Sudan.
Comments are open for this post, though they will be edited, as needed. Thanks for your ideas and other help, we look forward to hearing from you here or by email.