ORLANDO – The day three executive roundtable at CTIA Wireless centered around how wireless technologies, particularly mobile social media and ubiquitous coverage, are changing the way people organize and create social change, as well as respond to crisis like the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan.
Given recent global events, including everything from the uprisings in the Middle East and various disasters, the discussion was timely. Among the participants, there was a good deal of expertise on tap. On hand were Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch; Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter; and John Stanton, chairman of telecommunications investment firm Trilogy International Partners.
Panelists discussed the way in which mobile-based social media drove the revolution in Egypt. When asked whether Twitter actually created the revolution, Stone conceded that it did not.
"I don't think anyone in their right mind would say that sending a tweet is the equivalent of activism," Stone said, but added that his company's platform, which is essentially an overlay of SMS, is an incredible tool for social action.
Roth, whose organization had people on the ground in Egypt during the uprising there, said that people wouldn't have had the success that they did there without the aid of tools like Twitter.
"As the revolution was underway, it allowed incredibly quick communication among participants," he said, adding that in the end, a mobile-enabled populace, with a decentralized leadership, was impossible to control.
When asked whether government attempts to shut down the Internet in places like Iran and Egypt during protests had worked, Stanton said they only work temporarily. He said that eventually the government has to turn the networks back on because they need them as much as the people do.
"Ultimately mobile devices empower people and are more powerful than the government," Stanton said.
Roth agreed, saying that he never lost connection with his people on the streets in Egypt. By the use of redundant network technologies like satellite and cellular, the flow of information was never lost.
But all of the participants agreed that powerful technology is always a double-edged sword and one that can be abused by governments.
Stanton said that he was alarmed by the fact that some notorious governments in Africa are now demanding that operators give them the identities of all of their subscribers.
"It's a condition of doing business in these countries," Stanton said, adding that he hoped Human Rights Watch would take notice of the practice.
"There is a real risk of governments using this technology to control people;" Roth agreed.
Immediacy seemed to be a thread woven through the discussion. The participants agreed that the power of real-time communication has fundamentally changed the way that people get information. Again, that speed has risks. For instance, viruses and misinformation can spread at unprecedented speeds.
But in the end, the participants seemed optimistic that technology is still in the people's hands, saving lives and empowering entire societies to stand up to the oppressive leaders.
Stone said he's encouraged by the number of political leaders that are signing up with Twitter. He said that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had recently signed up for an account and sent his first tweet from the Twitter offices. And if you thought that Twitter was just some fad, consider Stone's anecdote about President Obama's recent quip when he heard that Medvedev was on Twitter.
"Obama was like, 'Oh, Medvedev is on Twitter? Cool, maybe we can get rid of the red phone now,'" Stone said.