The Mobile Handshake & Libya


Jay Rosen cast everyone that wrote a “twitter can’t topple dictators” article as not serious. Above The Law lists some serious people’s “cyber pragmatists”.

He must not have read Evgeny Morozov’s new book Net Delusion, whose very first chapter names the fools, links to the content, and reframes the big question as not whether social media matters but rather which side it ultimately benefits in the balance of power between citizens and authoritarian states.

Aaron Bady has a much more nuanced set of thoughts. TechPresident’s Nancy Scola has some additional words of wisdom on how to evaluate social media’s role in the latest wave of democratization

via Idle Twatter : Lawyers, Guns & Money.

I wrote one. I named a few people who made foolish statements. Maybe I can make my point more “serious”. Cheers to the people in Northern Africa and the Middle East that have used social media to promote and facilitate action.

Not all dictators will be so clumsy, lost or timid in the face of centralized, hardware network dependent social media (Iran, Zimbabwe). The networks that protesters used to disseminate information are dependent upon regime controlled infrastructure.

It’s great that Facebook and Twitter did so much for us. But the despots will figure out how to work around them both technically and politically. They’re too easy to disrupt. Facebook could go down on its own


There’s all kinds of crazy stuff you can do at a firewall to make one site appear to be having technical problems. Real technical problems (but fake ones nonetheless). There are consultants calling on generals all over the world, right now, selling them wonderful Internet dashboards that selectively and randomly make sites appear to have problems of their own, not caused by the government.

via Scripting News: A fractional horsepower news network.

Printing presses were decentralized. Newspapers are centralized distribution channels. The black churches, labor veterans and student organizations, not TV, newspapers or telephone, were the decentralized communication system that allowed the Civil Rights activists to organize and sustain. Mass media got white people to notice, it magnified efforts for an against the Civil Rights movement. Luckily, mostly for the civil rights movement. Telephones were tapped. TV Reports, news articles and the like often laced events with skepticism and bias reflective of the biases of reporters, editors and publishers that created them. See Fox News.
Decentralized, low cost, activist controlled links for communication and organizing are what matters most in this discussion. If oppressive regimes can avoid spectacle for portrayal in mass media while meting out authoritarian rule TV, newspapers and radio can actually be used to slow movements for universal rights.

The Albany police chief, Laurie Pritchett, carefully studied the movement’s strategy and developed a strategy he hoped could subvert it. He used mass arrests but avoided the kind of dramatic, violent incidents that might backfire by attracting national publicity. Pritchett arranged to disperse the prisoners to county jails all over southwest Georgia to prevent his jail from filling up. The Birmingham Post-Herald stated that “The manner in which Albany’s chief of police has enforced the law and maintained order has won the admiration of… thousands.”

via Albany Movement – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

And that is one way you contain a movement with mass media intact. No children or elderly were sprayed by fire hoses or attacked by police dogs All the “rabble rousing” protesters were contained as neatly as possible and all the people with TV sets and a newspaper on their doorsteps just ignored it. The protest still continued and TV told a story that didn’t help the civil rights movement.
The more oppressive the regime (using censorship, subversion, infiltration and monetary coercion), the more secure the activist’s decentralized network has to be. Sullivan references Time’s Abigail Hauslohner to smugly prove that Facebook was central to the revolution in Libya. What Hauslohner Time article actually describes is a Libyan tech savvy Pony Express along the Mediterranean that replaced a blocked Facebook (bold is from me):

“Generally, in Libya before this, there was no media,” explains Shallouf*. “So if Tobruk made a revolution, [the government] would spend three to five days killing us and finish the revolution. Nobody in [larger nearby communities and cities] al-Baida or Darna or Benghazi would have heard about it. But now with al-Jazeera and Facebook and the media, all of Libya hears about the revolution and is with the revolution. They know about it. They think, ‘I am Libyan, this is my family, so I will go to the street to fight for them.’ ”

He and fellow Libyans had followed the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings on al-Jazeera and satellite Arabic-language news channels. He did his best, along with other Libyan activists, to internally circulate the videos he saw so that other Libyans could get a glimpse of what was happening on either side of their closed-off country. “After I got videos from the Internet, we sent them from Bluetooth to Bluetooth. Mostly videos of fighting in Egypt. I felt two things when I saw these videos: I felt sad. And then I wanted to make a revolution!”

With the Internet shut down, Libyans crossed the border for access. Says Tawfik al-Shohiby, a chemical-engineering professor at the University of Tobruk: “We sent my brother and his friend to Marsa Matruh [in Egypt] to use the Internet. I went to Egypt every day to give him a flash disk full of media from Tobruk, al-Baida, Benghazi. They were videos from mobiles. Not just mine. We made copies, went to the Egyptian border at Salloum and gave it to someone there — my cousin’s son — and he went to Matruh, where my brother was. That was the first media center of the Libyan revolution. My brother [a 31-year-old computer engineer] had this idea. On the 16th of February, he printed flyers for the protest and spread them in the streets from his car.”
*[Gamal Shallouf a marine biologist interviewed by Hauslohner]
So these guys grabbed the media from Facebook and of the foreign uprisings and posted them from wall to wall. Libya ignited on the 15th and then on the 18th Gaddafi’s regime turned and restricted certain sites. Then Libyans established decentralized, ad hoc networks based on mobile device handshakes. Bluetooth, flash drives and road trips. In fact, in a country of 6.5m people with 5m mobile users vs. 300K internet users and an oppresive regime, (Note: These usage numbers may suggest that more info sharing may have been more “mobile to mobile”).
In Libya mobile hardware disconnected from any social network with video capability, and cheap flash storage and handshake transmission of disconnected media (aka off the grid) allowed information to be sent to and from Libya. The serious question becomes: what are mobile technology restrictions that could break the offline social network that was created by the Libyans? Some answers:
  • “Locked” mobile devices
  • Insecure GSM (GSM mobile can be traced with a simple hack)
  • DRM format restricted devices
  • Non-replaceable batteries
  • Application/Utility installation restrictions
  • Devices that can be remotely wiped without user consent (prior or real time)
  • Devices without removable memory or directly accessible file systems

These restrictions are common in mobile devices, but governments are already demanding even higher barriers to free use from carriers and manufacturers and that is a serious problem.