Telecommunications and the Rise of Political Liberty

December 13, 2008

[First published on February 15, 2006] Ambassador David A. Gross, U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy gave the 2006 Grafstein Lecture in Communications , University of Toronto, Faculty of Law on February 7, 2006. For those of you interested in globalizing democracy and freedom, he hits the right note in focusing on the role of telecommunications, which is often ignored in providing help to a people struggling for freedom. He also exemplifies the positive change Secretary Rice has made at State.

Here is an extract of his presentation:

Let’s consider the following question in our discussion this afternoon: How do . . . new communications technologies affect our shared goals of promoting the growth of freedom and democracy around the world? U.S. journalist David Broder, of the Washington Post, said “Technology is the servant, not the master, of change.” As we look at these communications technologies, it is important for us to remember that as freedom-loving people we should use these advanced technologies for the betterment of everyone. This brings me to the critically important concept of transformational diplomacy.

Transformational Diplomacy
During her confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained her view of “transformational diplomacy” and the foreign diplomacy role of the U.S. State Department. She said:

We must use American diplomacy to help create a balance of power in the world that favors freedom. This time of global transformation calls for transformational diplomacy.

Simply put, we cannot afford to leave the world as we have found it. Instead, we must create possibilities for change by putting our values into practice, leveraging the power of ideas and taking difficult decisions for freedom. In a speech at Georgetown University this past month, Secretary Rice emphasized that a transformed U.S. diplomatic effort would not be one-sided. She said: 

I would define the objective of transformational diplomacy this way: To work with our many partners around the world to build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that will respond to the needs of their people and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system . . . Transformational diplomacy is rooted in partnership, not paternalistic in doing things with other people, not for them. We seek to use America’s diplomatic power to help foreign citizens to better their own lives, and to build their own nations, and to transform their own futures . . . .

The Growth of Information and Communications Technology
As you are aware, when people talk about the important role that ICTs [information and communications technologies] play in the world, the emphasis is usually first and foremost on the economic benefits of technology, such as the remarkable increases in productivity and other economic benefits.

. . . . Driven by technical changes, the deployment of wireless networks, the Internet, including broadband, and other innovative communications technologies, have expanded dramatically during the past few years all across the world. The growth of the Internet and wireless services has been particularly dramatic. . . .

Economic Benefits of ICT 
This spread, and use of the Internet, wireless telephony, and other innovative technologies, has created new economic opportunities and contributed to GDP (gross domestic product) growth in ways that we never could have imagined just a few short years ago. Countries around the globe can thank the Internet and these other technologies for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new jobs.

The economic benefits from the dramatic increases in the use of ICTs in countries such as Canada and the United States are well known. But more importantly, the results of the explosive growth of using ICTs worldwide for other countries, especially in the developing world, are even more fundamental to their future growth. For example:

China: Currently, China, a country that I will discuss in more detail in a few moments, has the world’s largest number of landline and mobile telecommunications subscribers, including remarkably 363 million cell phone subscribers (more than the entire populations of the United States and Canada combined!) and a 27.6% penetration rate. China estimates that by the end of this year there will be more than 820 million total telephone subscribers, up from 748 million in 2005. Chinese telecom carriers expect to generate revenues of more than $86 billion in 2006. These are large and impressive numbers.

Just last week, China reported that its Internet population, already the world’s second largest after the United States, had risen to 111 million, representing a growth of 17 million people in just the last year. Furthermore, China said that the number of people with broadband Internet access had risen by more than 50% to 64 million. Some experts predict that the number of Internet users in China could reach 750 million in just the next few decades. However, as I will discuss in a minute, we should all recognize that despite the growing number of internet users, Internet censorship limits democratization because it prevents Chinese citizens from having access to a variety of sources of information and the freedom to discuss these matters. For example, the Chinese government blocks certain foreign news sites, websites which call for greater Chinese government accountability and the sites of human rights organizations critical of China.. . . .

Studies on Economic Growth and Technology 
Let me shift now to note some interesting studies that show the correlation between economic growth and technology.

Some of you may have read about a groundbreaking study on the relationship between economic growth and mobile phones conducted by Leonard Waverman, Meloria Meschi, and the University of Toronto’s own, Melvyn Fuss. The study was reported in The Economist: 
”Overall the study’s model suggests that in a typical developing country, an increase in 10 mobile phones per 100 people boosts GDP (gross domestic product) growth by 0.6 percentage points. The Economist, March 12, 2005, Economic Focus, Calling Across the Digital Divide.

We expect to continue to see the substantial positive economic impact of mobile telephony in places such as Africa and we were encouraged that the study recognized the fundamental fact that mobile telephony is “being rolled out at a faster rate in developing countries than developed ones, closing the digital divide.” A similar, but methodologically different, study of the economic impact of mobile services on Latin America, conducted by David Lewin and Susan Sweet of Ovum, found that “in middle income countries, such as those of Latin America, increasing mobile penetration by 10% boosts GDP growth by 0.3% per year.” The authors found this to be a “very significant increase in countries where overall national GDP is growing at only 1.5% per year.”. . . .

Social Benefits of ICT
The promise of the Internet is not fulfilled just by economic growth alone. The true fulfillment of the Internet is realized only by the opportunity these technologies offer all nations and all people to pursue educational, cultural, political, medical, scientific, and commercial achievements. And this is happening. The social benefits of increased use of ICTs are very well known, especially in the areas of e-government, e-learning, e-health and the like. . . .

The creation of Internet search engines, online data bases, online digital libraries, and e-government services transformed our access to information, our lives, our work and play. I could, if given the time and access to the Internet, give you extraordinary examples of the transformational, positive impact that telephones, especially cell phones, and the Internet are having on peoples’ lives, particularly in the developing world.

Political Benefits of ICT 
But while the economic and social benefits of ICT for people throughout the world are remarkable, I want to focus on a different benefit that comes from the spread of these new technologies, the benefit these new technologies bring to freedom and political liberty around the world, and the rise of political liberty.

Famously, there was John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, published in 1996, that stated, in part, “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” That view quickly proved to be wrong. Of course, that view is still wrong. But, because that naive view became outdated so quickly, people assumed that the Internet and other new forms of communications were not really having a major impact on the political process, at least to advance liberty and democracy. Fortunately, that limited view has turned out to also be wrong.

Looking back to the early 1970’s, there were approximately 30 democracies in the world. As President Bush stated in his State of the Union address last week, there are now 122 electoral democracies [as defined by Freedom House ] in the world today. In fact, President Bush stated in 2003 that:

Historians will note that in many nations, the advance of markets and free enterprise helped to create a middle class that was confident enough to demand their own rights. They will point to the role of technology in frustrating censorship and central control, and marvel at the power of instant communications to spread the truth, the news, and courage across borders.

President Bush also noted, as have many others, that these conditions allowed the world to experience, in a little over a generation’s time, the swiftest advance of freedom in the past 2,500 years. Certainly, free speech, effective rule of law, and free and fair elections, are also all necessary components of democracy. It is my contention, though, that information and communications technology is a primary engine for global economic growth and the free flow of information that spurs the rise in political liberty.

Satellite Technology: Let’s start with the pre-Internet world of the 1960’s. As early as 1961, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 1721, stating that global satellite communications should be made available to all nations on a non-discriminatory basis. The following August, President Kennedy signed the Communications Satellite Act with the goal of establishing a satellite system in cooperation with other nations. Although international commercial satellite services began in the 1960’s, it was not until 1971 when the international treaty creating Intelsat was signed and satellite services were soon made available to more than a hundred countries around the world. The creation of Intelsat was done explicitly to provide both economic growth and the free flow of information to potential democracies in the developing world. Now we take this heavenly system of communications satellites for granted!

Fiber Optic Technology: Satellite technology was not the only new technology that was changing the face of communications during this time. The introduction of the first trans-Atlantic fiber optic cable, TAT-8 in 1988, was significant because it dramatically increased transmission capacity as compared to earlier generations of cables and cut costs by 95%. Successive fiber optic cables have transited other oceans, expanded the quality of service and significantly increased capacity, while the price of investment has dropped at an astounding rate. The cost per circuit dropped from US$1 million in 1956 to US$310 in 2003. A decline of more than 99.9%

What does such increased capacity and dramatic lowering of costs mean in the real world? While both satellite and fiber optic technology brought the world closer together with virtually instantaneous communications, its primary impact was the incredible drop in the price of telephone calls and television transmission. In the U.S., for example, the average end user charge per minute of international telephone service went from US$1.34 in 1980 to US$.21 in 2003, a drop of 84%. In Russia, where ten years ago it cost US$4.00 per minute to make an international call, now it costs four cents a minute.

Decline in the Statist Paradigm: This, in turn, resulted in an explosive increase in international calls, in other words, families, friends, businesses and news organizations could talk with each other and share information of every sort. With the introduction of wireless phones in the 1980s, particularly the 1990’s and in this decade, more than 2 billion people have telephone service, many for the first time. The unexpected and unprecedented increase in conductivity has meant that direct information flows could, and have, occurred in ways never before imagined. While technology was changing, things did not stand still on the regulatory side of the communications revolution either. In the U.S., we had the divestiture of AT&T in 1984. It was a significant milestone in terms of changing both the mindset and the law regarding the United States communications industry. In 1987, the European Union began its trek down its deregulatory path with its Telecommunications Green Paper on the development of a common market in telecommunications equipment and services. By the time the Uruguay Trade Round was in full swing in the 1990s, negotiations began in 1994 to open up basic telecommunications markets to competition with the signing of the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Basic Telecommunications Services that went into effect in 1998.

These legal and regulatory changes meant that the traditional statist control of communications, both telephony and mass media, was no longer the dominant paradigm. Instead, we began seeing the empowerment of citizens around the world with the private provisioning of services through competitive companies.

A nagging holdover from the earlier monopoly era has been the continued governmental ownership of some telecommunications companies. Progress advanced in many countries. For instance, an already privatized British Telecom saw the removal of Her Majesty’s Government’s golden share in order to fully divest the government of its last shred of control. Unfortunately, I am sorry to say, there are some countries who still insist on some government control, which limits economic growth and prosperity in those countries. Nevertheless, the legal environment for the telecommunications industry in virtually all parts of the world has been liberalized. This fact is perhaps best illustrated by the ITU’s statistic that there are now well more than 100 countries with independent telecom regulators. So, during the last quarter century we have seen technology lead to extraordinary declines in telecommunications costs and, with liberalization, a remarkable explosion in the number and availability of communications devices and services, especially in the developing world.

Technology and Political Liberty 
But how have these advanced technologies that we are discussing today actually increased political liberty?

Let me give you some examples: 
China: An example of the importance of technology in the context of people wanting to be free was the Tiananmen Square protest by Chinese students in 1989. First, the outside world was able to immediately learn about what was going on in Tiananmen Square, that is until the Chinese Government pulled the plug on television newscast transmissions. Then telephones let students know the reaction of the outside world, helped them communicate with their families, and even connected the Chinese leaders to each other. Once the television broadcasts were stopped, telephones, e-mail and particularly faxes were used to continue to transmit information to the rest of the world. A lasting effect of all of this was that it showed the Chinese Government that these technologies were something to be reckoned with.

Ukraine: The cell phone has been credited with having been a pivotal component in the success of the famous Orange Revolution that took place in Ukraine in 2004. “Smart-mobbing” resulted from Kiev’s college students SMSing each other and telling them to meet in Independence Square and bring along their friends.

Uganda: In a conversation I had about two weeks ago with a senior Ugandan official, we discussed how cell phones were encouraging political discussion. He said Uganda had just two radio stations ten years ago and now they have about 140. Talk radio is very popular and listeners frequently call in on their cell phones to offer their opinion. He pointed out that some of the radio operators were not making money, but that they went to great expense just to have a voice on the airwaves. While radio has been a political tool and a means to disseminate information for many years, now cell phones are enabling Ugandans to more easily share their opinions and engage in regular national political discussion. This is, in part, because Uganda increased its teledensity rate by a factor of twenty-five times in the past 7 years. The same story of the impact of combining radio broadcasts with mobile phones is true in Kenya and other countries across Africa.

Mozambique: Cell phone text messaging played a pivotal role in Mozambique’s recent elections, alerting voters to a candidate who engaged in improper conduct that led to his expulsion from government service in the 1980s. The SMSs even included the issue number of the official government gazette announcing the expulsion and reportedly contributed to the candidate’s defeat.

Saudi Arabia: In Saudi Arabia, the number of cell phone users has grown exponentially and political groups and candidates were able to capitalize on this telecom modernization by using text messaging as a campaign tool.

The Jeddah elections were unique in that women were allowed to run for the first time. Text messaging also provided women with an additional medium for campaigning without the usual social restrictions, which often limit women’s access to audiences.

Iraq: Turning to Iraq, according to an ABC News poll conducted in November 2005, 62% of Iraqi households have cell phones compared to just 6% in early 2004. In a country where access to phone lines and communication was limited to a select few under Saddam Hussein and where there were no cell phones, now there are more than 4 million cell phones.

President Bush called the Iraqi elections this past December, “a landmark day in the history of liberty.” Cell phones helped relay a vital message, to those who were reluctant to leave the safety of their homes, that the voting centers were safe and secure. And the world saw a larger than anticipated turn-out.

Here too, text messaging was used as a campaign tool. It is amazing to see the rapid adoption of new technology and its creative use, such as the SMS campaigning, to advance the cause of freedom in a place such as Iraq.

Afghanistan: Afghanistan is a country where under the rule of the Taliban the Internet was outlawed, and very few had phone service. And, to make an international call, most citizens had to leave the country. Today, there are a million mobile phones in Afghanistan and you can walk into one of many cafes in Kabul and get on the Internet. The two largest cell phone companies in the country have invested over $240 million. Given its geographic location, and its limited production of domestic goods, Afghanistan has long been known for its role in regional trade and for its people’s entrepreneurial spirit. The free market and the establishment of a democratic government have fueled the growth of telecommunications. As Afghanistan’s lines of communication continue to grow and connect with the rest of the world, we expect greater growth, a greater trade role for Afghanistan in the region, and we expect to see the reemergence of the traditional entrepreneurial spirit of the Afghan people.

The political aspects of blogs is worthy of an entire lecture. But, as Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard Law School’s Berman Center for Internet and Society, has stated, “Not only do blogs provide an alternative space for free speech in countries where the press may not be independent, free or strong, they also enable people in Africa to challenge media representations in the U.S. and Europe.”

While the Internet and ICTs are being used increasingly for political purposes and have expanded political and personal liberty’s toolbox, the concept of free flow of information is still being challenged today and it has recently been a matter of very public international debate.

Along these lines, let me mention China again concerning a critical issue that is currently in the news: censorship. As we know, China has made great strides in its economic development, but the Chinese leadership has drawn a line in an attempt to separate economic reform from political debates. That line is an illusion. Interfering with the free-flow of ideas over the Internet does not break the resolve of political dissidents. Instead, it limits China’s economic potential at a time when, as the PRC claims, it wants to foster indigenous innovation fueled by increased foreign investment.

China’s information control practices undermine human innovation, limiting the sharing of ideas, and violate fundamental human rights. They hamper research and development and entrepreneurship because the best minds work best when they are free to express themselves on the subjects they choose.

World Summit on the Information Society 
This leads us to a discussion of a major multilateral event in which the United States, Canada, and more than 170 other nations participated where the free flow of information was directly challenged. It was the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which took place in two phases. Phase I was held in Geneva in December of 2003 and Phase II followed in Tunis in November of 2005.

The countries gathered at Phase I reached agreement on a document reaffirming the fundamental principles for building the Information Society in the new Millennium. One of the key factors recognized in building the Information Society was “the ability for all to access and contribute information, ideas and knowledge” as an essential element to foster inclusiveness.

Article 4 of the 2003 World Summit’s Declaration of Principles stated the following: 
”We reaffirm, as an essential foundation of the Information Society, and as outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and the foundation of all social organization. It is central to the Information Society. Everyone, everywhere should have the opportunity to participate and no one should be excluded from the benefits the Information Society offers.

I do not believe that it’s an accident that we have more democracies now in the world than ever before at the same time that information is able to flow more freely. More people have access to information than ever before, which empowers people, and the access helps support and encourage democracies around the world. . . .

One of the key results of the WSIS was to clearly identify the nexus between technology and freedom. We should not lose sight of the linkage between our fundamental policy goals of free flow of information, freedom of expression, and the important technical aspects of this medium. 
As we look ahead to the complex future of the Internet, it is increasingly important that we understand fully the political implications of what seem to be very technical issues.

We saw this nexus on full display at the WSIS where some countries focused a great deal of attention on the Internet Domain Name System, arguing that greater oversight and control by governments was necessary. . . .

Ultimately, WSIS concluded that the current Internet system is working well and that international cooperation (by this we mean cooperation by all stakeholders, not just governments) should continue through existing institutions, whether it be the ITU, the World Trade Organization (WTO), World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) or other existing organizations. This is an extremely positive outcome that sends a message to the world and to business that the Internet is essential and it will continue to operate in a stable, secure fashion. It should not be weighted down by increased government bureaucracy or political wrangling.

The WSIS in Tunis explicitly endorsed the previous position taken in Geneva in 2003 that information flow should be free on the Internet. I’ve already used this unanimous adoption of close to 200 countries to call out countries not adhering to these principles. It gives me an arrow in my diplomatic quiver that I didn’t have before. Now, I’m not naive for I know that those countries censoring information on the Internet are not going to stop just because I ask them to do it. But they should do it because it is right for their people and necessary for the long term prosperity and development of their countries. . . .

At the conclusion of Phase Two of the World Summit on the Information Society last year, the resulting document, entitled the “Tunis Commitment,” once again reaffirmed the earlier commitments of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Phase One of the World Summit, and further stated, 
”We recognize that freedom of expression and the free flow of information, ideas, and knowledge, are essential for the Information Society and beneficial to development.”‘

We must ensure that those are not hollow words, but have real meaning and are carried out by all of us: governments, universities, and everyone who has a stake in this process. We all must continue to make progress to protect personal liberties, to protect political liberty and to ensure that information and communications technologies continue to enable the world’s citizens to enjoy greater economic well-being, to live happier, healthier lives, and to live in liberty and freedom.

RJR: All I would add to this is an important indirect effect of ICT on freedom. As ICT facilitates economic growth and development, it also facilitates the growth of the middle class, economic diversity, and a rational-secular society, and thereby a greater desire for democratic freedom and facility to achieve it.

A Related Link I Must Share

“Party elders attack China censors”:

A group of former senior Communist party officials in China have launched a scathing attack on the country’s handling of the media and information.
In an open letter, the group denounced the recent closure of investigative newspaper Bingdian (Freezing Point). They said strict censorship may “sow the seeds of disaster” for China’s political transition.

Among the signatories are an ex-aide to Mao Zedong, a former newspaper editor and a former party propaganda chief.

“History demonstrates that only a totalitarian system needs news censorship, out of the delusion that it can keep the public locked in ignorance,” the group said in the letter, according to Reuters news agency.

Online, and free pdf download