Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Build it or they will come

In 2007 a combined SMS and online electoral monitoring system went into action in Nigeria to report electoral fraud. Based on increasing mobile use (as fixed infrastructure is very limited in the country), mobile phones were able to provide voters with a voice when ballots were not conducted fairly. Similar systems are now being used in a range of other countries across the world to broadcast any electoral issues to the world.

Next, due to the effective application of online social media, in 2008 the preferred Democrat nominee for the US Presidency was beaten by a relative newcomer with little national profile. That relative newcomer then went on to successfully win the US Presidential race.

Earlier this year when UK Parliamentarians were caught charging expenses that the public deemed inappropriate they sought to protect their privacy by providing PDF documents, blacking out a significant portion of the documents for privacy and legal reasons. However the UK Guardian newspaper created a website (in less than 5 days) where the public could transcribe pages and cross-match critical information. Within 10 minutes of release over 320 members of the public were busy transcribing a few pages each, and within a few hours more than 2,000 pages had been reviewed. Now over 197,000 pages have been reviewed by over 22,000 UK citizens.

The Guardian was not alone in this effort, other websites such as www.whattheyclaimed.com began similar efforts to improve parliamentary transparency.

Most recently the Iranian election has been internationally scrutinised through the actions of hundreds of thousands of young Iranians using Twitter and similar online services to send messages, photos and videos out of the country. The medium has been used to organise protests, identify electoral fraud and keep the world informed of developments in a country which restricts journalists and the free press.

Internationally many people have supported the protesters in Iran by providing ways for them to send their messages out as the government systematically, and unsuccessfully, attempted to block online communications channels. The combined efforts of thousands of people around the world outmaneuvered the Iranian government and ensured that the voices of Iranian citizens continued to be heard.

And finally, in China, which has the most internet users of any country in the world, the government attempted to bolster its 'great firewall' (known internally as the Golden Shield Project) with software required to be installed on every PC. Despite using sophisticated software and a rumoured over 30,000 public officials working full-time to ensure that the Chinese people do not see material online that the government deems inappropriate, the Chinese have been unable to prevent their citizens from accessing the free media of other countries or using the internet to share their thoughts on the Chinese regime - both good and bad.

Resistance to the new measure has been intense. The Chinese government has already had to soften its approach from making the software compulsory to install to simply making it available with every computer.

These examples represent the change going on across the world. Out of Africa, across the Middle East, Europe, the Americas and into Asia, the internet is reshaping the relationship between governments and their citizens.

Governments who have attempted to limit or prevent citizen access to the internet have failed in almost every jurisdiction. In most cases the government dare not take the extreme step of disconnect their citizens completely, as the internet has become critical for private enterprises and the government in conducting their business.

Governments are finding that attempting to control new media use by citizens, or simply to continue to use old patterns of governing, is progressively seeing their control over the public agenda weaken.

Where governments are not building public services online, members of the public are banding together to do so - effectively disintermediating governments.

The lesson for me is that if governments are to lead their people, they need to acknowledge and accept the changes that are occurring, reform their own culture and operations where necessary and get out in front and demonstrate leadership.

Fortunately for Australia, increasingly our governments are recognising and acting on this.

No comments:

Post a Comment