Information Warfare: December 23, 2004

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The information revolution is being led, not by the Internet (with about 700 million users worldwide), but by cell phones (1.5 billion worldwide.) China is one of the more striking examples of how this works. With over 300 million cell phone users, China is finding that the Internet is easier to control than all those cell phone users. About a quarter of the population has cell phones and they are nearly everywhere. People see something, they immediately start calling people. Rumors were always a problem in communist nations, but the cell phone allows rumors, and real information the government would rather keep to itself, to travel nation wide in minutes. Chinas Stalinist neighbor, North Korea, is being invaded by Chinese cell phones (many held illegally by North Koreans), and posing a very real threat to government control of the media. 

Actually, controlling the Internet is more a matter of limiting some information to users. This is much more difficult with telephones. China is known to be interested in software and technology that can be used to monitor large numbers of telephone messages, looking for anti-government material. There is also a limit, in terms of cost, to how many individual phones you can tap. The explosion in Internet and cell phone use in China, where two decades any phone service was an easily controlled luxury, has done more to introduce democracy than anything else. Government officials must pay attention to public opinion, because government misbehavior or incompetence can no longer be covered up. And when something does happen, most of the population will know about it quickly. And if the people are not happy with government actions, they now have the means to quickly mobilize protests. The government knows this, and has been reforming itself into a more efficient, and democratic, creature as a result. 

 


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