After a week of obsessing about spectrum and tablets, the wireless industry took time Thursday to consider the far-ranging effects of mobile devices and fast wireless networks on the very messy real world. A panel discussion with Biz Stone of Twitter, John Stanton of of Trilogy International Partners and Clearwire (NSDQ: CLWR), and Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch touched on recent events in Egypt, Japan, Haiti, and Syria and how the availability (or not) of mobile technologies shaped how those events were perceived.
The conversation, moderated by Michele Caruso-Cabrera of CNBC (NSDQ: CMCSA), was wide-ranging:
—On revolution: Much has been written about whether or not technologies like Twitter and Facebook “caused” the mostly peaceful revolution in Egypt, and Stone shrugged off any suggestion that he or the company were directly responsible for what took place. “I don’t think anybody in their right mind would say that sending a tweet is activism,” Stone said, but at the same time expressed pride at what Twitter has become and what it has allowed people to do.
The Twitter (and Facebook) effect in Egypt was two-fold, Roth said: it allowed protest leaders to communicate with followers without having to be physically present, and therefore a target for government authorities, and it also allowed protesters to see exactly how many people were joining the movement.
—On rocks and hard places: The topic of Google’s struggles in China came up, as panelists debated whether or not working with governments that wish to censor in hopes of “pushing the envelope,” as Roth put it, is the right thing to do, or whether simply refusing to participate sends a stronger message. Google (NSDQ: GOOG), of course, initially thought it could make the first strategy until it realized that China had hacked into its internal network, at which point it took its ball and went to Hong Kong.
Stone was noncommittal on his company’s eventual plans for China. Twitter is seeing traffic from people inside China even though it is formally banned, he said, so there is definitely interest in the service. But Twitter has so far resisted joining the Global Network Initiative, which counts Google, Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT), and Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) among its members and seeks to help companies work with difficult governments. The company is reviewing the organization but hasn’t decided what yet to do, Stone said, taking a small step beyond what Twitter was willing to acknowledge earlier this month in a New York Times (NYSE: NYT) article about GNI.
—On freedom from legacy: One nice thing about bringing mobile and wireless technologies to the developing world is that there’s often no established way of doing things to overcome, Stanton said. Trilogy has done a lot of work trying to upgrade Haiti’s communications network following last year’s devastating earthquake, which also gave them the opportunity to try and get people to use more sophisticated payment systems, through mobile phones, for example. People in Haiti were distrustful of banks but wary of keeping all their money in their houses amid widespread looting, and small steps like stored-value systems in mobile phones get people on the road to more modern forms of banking more effectively than top-down government strategies.
“Mobile devices empower individuals, and that’s more powerful than the government,” Stanton said.