Democracy & Technology Blog SMS and the wireless future of dissent

“New Political Tool: Text Messaging,” by Cathy Hong, Christian Science Monitor, 30 June 2005.
The Christian Science Monitor has an excellent piece today about cellphone short message services (SMS), better known as text messaging. In particular, the author focuses on China, now the world’s largest cellphone market with an estimated 350 million subscribers.
I have two connections with this story.
During my first summer as an intern in Washington, D.C. I attended a a Capital Hill hearing for the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission. During the USCC hearing, “SARS in China: Implications for Media Control and the Economy”, one of the speakers testified that the Chinese government found covering up the SARS outbreak impossible, after tens of millions of Chinese copied and re-sent the text message, “There is a flu in Guangdong.” That message is probably one of the most copied in the brief history of SMS.
Sadly, the same hearing also featured details on how China uses some U.S.-derived technology and even U.S.-based tech support to block religious, pro-democracy and other “subversive” websites. China is a vast country, and if there are limits on what the U.S. government can do for the cause of human rights in China, how much less leverage does a single company have doing business there? The blogosphere and the mainstream media will both be debating these questions as the U.S. and Chinese economies become more interdependent.
Nonetheless, I came away from the Hill hearing with a hopeful impression. There is no way the censors can keep up with the people, especially if the medium (cellphones) is cheap and bandwidth (at least for repeating short text messages) is abundant. The Chinese government cannot prevent the networks it develops solely for business purposes from becoming forums for “foreign” or “subversive” (i.e. religious and democratic) ideas. So U.S. companies that help Chinese obtain cheap bandwidth are helping the cause of democracy and transparency at the end of the day, even if the Chinese Communist Party deludes itself into thinking that censorship will stem the tide of popular demands for transparency, human rights, and accountability.
My second connection to this story relates to the endquote, from Pastor Douglas Shin.

“With radios, it takes many hours of airtime to convince North Koreans that there’s something else out there,” says Douglas Shin, an activist who has helped North Koreans fleeing the country. “But with a cellphone, it can take one call to change someone’s mind.”

Pastor Shin is a leader in the global movement for human rights and peaceful regime change in North Korea. While self-proclaimed “realist” foreign policy types around the world assume that we will have to deal with Kim Jong Il or his successors for years to come, Pastor Shin’s congregants in South Korea faithfully stockpile humanitarian supplies towards the day North Korea’s regime collapses -and the DMZ barricades are torn down like the Berlin Wall.
During my internship at the Hudson Institute in the summer of 2004, I had the opportunity to meet Pastor Shin’s German colleague in the international NK human rights movement, the physician Norbert Vollertsen. Dr. Vollertsen is the author of Diary of a Made Place: Inside North Korea.
As we advocate for unleashing the full potential of broadband at home, we need to remind people what the stakes are in maintaining American technological leadership. It’s about much more than our economic competiveness vis a vis emerging superpowers China and India. American technological leadership will insure that technology continues to accelerate the downfall of tyranny and the spread of freedom.

Bret Swanson

Bret Swanson is a Senior Fellow at Seattle's Discovery Institute, where he researches technology and economics and contributes to the Disco-Tech blog. He is currently writing a book on the abundance of the world economy, focusing on the Chinese boom and developing a new concept linking economics and information theory. Swanson writes frequently for the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal on topics ranging from broadband communications to monetary policy.