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Opinion Piece 11-05-09

Posted on May 11 in O-TELby Press OfficerPrint

Technology as an enabler for democracy

Mohammad Patel, CEO of O-Tel

“Technology will make it increasingly difficult for the state to control the information its people receive,” said Ronald Reagan soon after stepping down as the president of the US. “The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.”

Although Reagan’s words still sound optimistic several years after he spoke them, there can be little doubt that information and communications technology has helped people around the world to safeguard and advance the cause of democracy.

From China and Burma, through to Moldova, Cuba and Saudi Arabia, the Internet has provided activists with a means to distribute information about abuses in their countries to the outside world, organise protests and get to information that their governments have suppressed.

While social media such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter are revolutionising the political process in the First World, mobile phones are becoming increasingly important tools for advancing democracy in developing countries. With some two billion handsets in the hands of people around the world, the mobile phone is perhaps the most pervasive piece of technology in the world. Think of the footage you might have seen of saffron-robed monks in Rangoon leading protests in the streets of Rangoon, Burma, capture at great personal risk by mobile phone users with cellphone cameras and then distributed worldwide across the Web.

Or consider recent protests in Moldova, where new media such as text messaging, Twitter and Facebook helped activists to organise protests against the communist government after a disputed election. Smart mobs of activists organised through SMS messaging have led to political change in the Philippines and the Ukraine.

Even in countries that are democratic, technology is bringing more transparency to the political process and making it easier for people to engage with political leaders. US President Barack Obama, for example, did an excellent job of using social networking sites and other online tools to engage with and mobilise voters during his 2008 election campaign.
Closer to home, major political parties including the ruling ANC and the Democratic Alliance (ANC), the official opposition (at the time of writing), have also embraced online tools such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter as a means of communicating with followers.

In so doing, they have opened themselves up to more scrutiny from, and interaction with, voters. ANC spokesperson, Jessie Duarte, for example, hosted a lively question and answer session on Twitter the Friday before Election Day.

The power of the technology has a tool for subversion should not be over-estimated, however. Repressive governments have are using content filtering and other tools to keep sensitive information from entering or leaving their countries; some have even managed to turn to the technology to their advantage for propaganda and surveillance.

Countries such as China, Vietnam and Iran have imprisoned dozens of cyber-dissidents. There is currently a race on between Revolution 2.0 and Oppression 2.0 with no clear indication of which will win, although I believe that repressive regimes will struggle to contain the chaotic and rapid spreading of information that ICT allows.

So as we celebrate Freedom Day in South Africa, we have much to be thankful for. The powerful tools of democracy - the Internet and the mobile phone - are becoming increasingly accessible in our society and we’re free to use them as we wish to enjoy our constitutional right to free speech.

My big wish for the years ahead is that the wonderful technology that many of South Africa’s more privileged people take for granted becomes more widely disseminated among the country’s population. There is no better enabler and protector of democracy than the free flow of ideas that the Internet and the mobile phone promote.

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