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Rolling back access and freedom online?

Michael Oluwagbemi's picture

Since the invention, or rather introduction to the world in the 90s, Internet and mobile phone technologies have been hugely instrumental to increased openness and access to information. In many poor societies, the opening effects of cell phone technologies have been profound. In transforming savings & microcredit in Kenya, for transmission of dissident videos in Iran, for responding to emergency situations and natural disasters in Haiti and Chile, for transmitting election anomalies in Iraq and tracking criminals in the US—the connection between mobile communications, wireless data transmission and the Internet have seen a jump in openness and a flattening of societal hierarchies.

While once, before the days of mobile phone technologies, voice/data communications was the preserve of the rich; countries like Nigeria have achieved a greater than 40% penetration within ten years of mobile phone introduction, with mobile technology usage becoming a norm rather than an exception. Even though there is still room for improvement, there is no doubt that the march towards adoption is on the rise.

Governments once used to total control, are seemingly losing the script. Once upon a time, gendarmes and a strong arm tactic meant that opposition took the form of cryptic descriptions on the pages of one week old weekly magazines. Not anymore. Today, YouTube videos get transmitted in near real-time and shock the world: weakening the aggressor and strengthening the spirit of the victim.

Today, many applications—both mobile phone and wireless Internet-driven are being built to organize people on the micro-level toward self empowerment socially, as well as economically. Mobile phone based payment or banking systems are popping up in every corner of the world: developing or developed. In the same manner, e-government mobile based applications have recently risen to co-opt the energy of community organizing riding on the boom in smart phones that is putting Android, I-Phones and Blackberry’s in the pockets of once disenfranchised citizens of the world.

Even in democratic societies, the push and pull of mobile & web technologies are being felt by the governing class from the governed. Real time information means fast speed response from the White House to the 24 hours news cycle, which means less control. In far less open societies, the push back may well have begun. Is the arm-twisting on Research in Motion (RIMM), the manufacturer of blackberry, a sign of things to come? Time will tell. The Google-Verizon proposal on tiered web rates is definitely giving some advocates of open Internet a pause. However, I still would not draw conclusions that this new pushback will end the growth of mobile phones or reduce the pressure on leaders to ensure good governance. 

The reason for optimism is because the degree to which the world swings back the other way towards more control, and less mobile-Internet freedom and access, depends on the youth of today and leaders of tomorrow. Generations X, Y & Z across the world are more open minded, generally less likely to seek or demand control and may well be the last defense against the push back. They are the electorates and leaders of tomorrow; the world population more than any other time is dominated by youths, and the world’s fastest growing regions and countries: Middle East, India, Nigeria and Brazil are youth dominated- and this is a sign of things to come.

While we can only wait on the clock to tell, one thing is clear: mobile phones and web technologies are here to stay. What degree of access we maintain to them, for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable to human right abuses and exploitation remains to be seen: only us, the youths of the world, will make that determination. By our attitudes towards this trend, youth will shape the world of tomorrow regardless of what the current generation of leaders thinks; one decade and a half and counting.

Photo: Ami Vitale / World Bank