Telecoms and the Arab Spring

18 October 2011 | Tim Phillips

How ingenuity helps information to squeeze out.

One of the ways in which Colonel Gaddafi maintained his grip on power in Libya from 1969 to 2011 was to control the means of mass communication. The “Arab Spring”, in common with many other popular uprisings, highlighted this problem: when the situation became difficult domestically, threatened rulers simply responded by taking their countries off the internet, and throttling cellphone services.

Syria disappeared off the internet on June 3 for one day, while on March 2, Libya’s internet became unresponsive just ahead of the “Day of Rage”. Egypt trialled this policy in the last days of the Mubarak regime, disappearing from the internet for five days in January. It ultimately failed, because it attracted more attention to the regime’s policies. But it showed that newsgathering was still reliant on two things that an autocratic government can control: access for professional journalists, and data networks.

Yet the Arab Spring has shown that content is most needed, and is most powerful, close to where it is created. This requires the minimum of network coverage. It doesn’t even need professional newsgatherers.

That’s the thinking behind Small World News, an organisation which is training Libyans to create, capture and share video news stories. SWN already has a history in the region: founders Brian Conley and Steve Wyshywaniuk have already worked in Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt to “communicate the reality of events actively denied by authoritarian governments”, as its website tells us.

The founders explain that, by capturing film using local volunteers, mobile phones and digital cameras, they rely less on the big networks, and more on ingenuity to upload videos shot close to the front line. “Probably the way we deal with that most directly is using satellite technology. When Steve was in Libya, he was uploading via VSAT. When the internet was shut down, we used a service called Speak2Tweet, and it circumnavigated it. We try to have friends in good places and keep an eye on what’s being used,” Conley says.

Speak2Tweet is an example of how news squeezes out: by leaving a voicemail on a local number, the information is translated and tweeted by volunteers. When there are no bars on the mobile signal, data still passes from phone to phone – by Bluetooth, if necessary.

Small World News is a reminder that, if a lack of information is the problem, bandwidth isn’t the only solution. It also reminds us that, if the internet was expected to solve the problems of autocratic governments controlling the news, someone still controls access to the internet. Ingenuity, however, can mean that, with minimum data, the news can get through.

“We’re hoping for SWN we can provide a platform. Whether that becomes a new wire service, or whether it becomes its own entity like Al-Jazeera remains to be seen,” Conley says.

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