Internet Privacy and the Power of Mobile Phone Companies

Human Rights and Information Technology, Doing Well and Doing Good

Historically, telephony has been highly regulated while the Internet has not.  With the convergence of mobile telephony and the Internet, a host of regulatory and legal frameworks that manage spectrum and protect individual rights are being challenged for inadequacy.  In the developed world, governments fighting the war on terror want access to individual mobile phone and internet data.  In the developing world, oppressive governments from the Arab world to China, seek to aggressively suppress dissent by monitoring individual mobile phone and internet activity.  Human rights advocates worldwide are vigorously resisting governmental attempts to access individual data and often vilify the companies that comply with governmental requests, calling on companies to increase individual security and anonymity on mobile devices and resist government law enforcement requests.

What are the implications for companies like Google or AT&T?  Google was praised by human rights activists for pulling out of mainland China rather than comply with the government’s censorship requirements.   But Google’s decision was made easier because it was a distant 2nd in search queries behind Baidu and because it could provide uncensored service, albeit more limited, by shifting it from the Chinese mainland to Hong Kong.  Would Google have made a similar decision in countries where it enjoyed more significant market power?  In turn, AT&T has been criticized in the U.S. for compliance with Patriot Act requests, but has experienced more muted criticism overseas.

AT&T operates in over 150 countries via licensing agreements for spectrum access, and has more phones operating internationally than any other U.S. carrier, due primarily to large business customers.  Subsequently, one might assume that AT&T must wield great influence over resisting requests by governments seeking access to information on mobile phone customers.  But I was surprised to learn during the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference that mobile phone companies like AT&T, when confronted by governmental requests for individual customer data, are limited contractually.

To gain access to a country’s spectrum, mobile telephone companies must operate under the terms of a government’s license, which customarily includes requirements to provide support to government’s law enforcement as needed.  As with law enforcement requests under the U.S. Patriot Act, phone companies providing support to law enforcement is a thorny issue, but at least individual rights enjoy greater legal protections from government intervention in the developed world.  Not so in the developing world, as countries from China, Egypt, and Syria apprehend those they deem dissenters who are identified by monitoring individual telephone and Internet activities via consent of telephone companies.

There is a significant cost for a mobile phone company to secure licenses to operate in multiple countries and they in turn, make commitments to their individual and business customers to ensure access.  So when faced with a request from a law enforcement agency, one that might enable a government to suppress dissent that in the Western world would be commonplace and legal (e.g. Freedom of Expression), what should a mobile phone company do? 

First, a company has an obligation to ensure it’s a legitimate request, that it is issued pursuant to a country’s laws, that it comes from the appropriate government authority, and that the request fits the requirements outlined in the licensing agreement. But is that enough?  Some companies would argue that they are duty bound under a country’s licensing agreement to respond to the law enforcement request or risk losing its license.  And losing that license would have a material impact on operating performance, which may put corporate management in conflict with shareholders. 

But most human rights activists rightly dismiss companies who say they are simply following the laws of the country in which they operate. If lead paint is illegal in the U.S. but legal in a country overseas, should a U.S.-based toy company allow application of lead paint on its toys in that overseas country?   If freedom of expression is legal in the U.S. but illegal in an overseas country, should a U.S.-based mobile phone company like AT&T assist a foreign government in suppressing individual freedom of expression?

These are highly complex issues, uniquely nuanced for each country, and it is too simplistic to argue that a company must always take the moral high ground and refuse government requests, sacrificing their operating license if needed.  But should more companies like Google take stands when faced with what they perceive as law enforcement requests that violate human rights, even if legal by that country’s norms?

Most human rights advocates recognize the complexity of the issues but argue that companies like AT&T have an obligation to wield their power to ensure their customers’ anonymity and security, resisting law enforcement requests that seemingly violate basic human rights, to delay compliance as long as possible.  Some note that with Arab Spring, governments fell so quickly that if mobile phone companies delayed compliance, some human rights activists might still be alive today.

For human rights activists, the stakes can be life or death; for companies, it’s their brand reputation.  But with the advent of social media, this brand reputation damage can be immediate, impacting employee morale, incurring investor ire and increased media scrutiny and consumer backlash via grassroots campaigns.  So it’s incumbent upon companies to be at the table.  At the Silicon Valley Human Right conference, I was pleased that representatives from companies like AT&T, Google, Twitter, and Facebook, were present and engaging in robust dialogue.  For it is only through such dialogue,  between corporate and stakeholder opinion leaders, that we will be able to identify and effect the systemic solutions, protecting individual freedoms and enhancing brand reputation, that we need to see.

Tomato plants stacked 5 high. Potatoes floating in a hydroponic stew of nutrients. The urban farmer.


Urban farming on the next level.




Urban farming at least on a small scale is an idea who’s time has come for sure.

From Brooklyn to the Bay Area farming in the city has sprouted (sorry) up all over the place. There are even farmers markets I am told that sell only food grown on urban “farms.”

This can only be a good thing. Eating your food as close to the source as possible is a pretty good idea both for you and for the planet. It really is kind of silly that we eat strawberries grown in Argentina.

But taking urban farming to the commercial level is a different kind of challenge than getting hipster foodies to eat homegrown eggplant.

Click here for the piece in on urban farming.



IT for the Bottom of the Pyramid

 “For the first time in history, four billion people are connected,”


By Juliette Terzieff

In 2002, C. K. Prahalad and Stuart L. Hart released their book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, a controversial idea on targeting production to impoverished individuals and communities that sparked debates across corporate conference tables in the United States and abroad.

The book’s challenge: produce and distribute products and services that are “culturally sensitive, environmentally sustainable, and economically profitable” to sell to the four billion people at the bottom of the pyramid—those with annual per capita income of less than $1,500. By doing so, some of the world’s wealthiest companies would have to restructure their managerial practices for the new market, and learn to think outside the box in terms of pricing and packaging.

If MNCs invest in “the bottom of the pyramid,” these companies can potentially have a dramatic impact on global poverty, social unrest, political conflict and other issues development experts cite as tied to increasing gaps between wealthy and poor nations. MNCs must recognize that the bottom of the pyramid market offers them a “major new challenge: how to combine low cost, good quality, sustainability, and profitability.”

By creating that buying power and helping to shape aspirations, companies can improve access to education and the world, and tailor “local solutions—the four elements of the commercial infrastructure for the bottom of the pyramid are intertwined.” Innovation in one area creates innovation in other areas. MNCs need to “work with NGOs, local and state governments, and communities” to make progress and create new ecosystems.

In a 2009 interview with Knowledge@Wharton, when asked how he thought The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid ideas were received, Prahalad stated, “there was a fair amount of skepticism—and rightly so. People could not just dismiss the idea; they knew that it was an interesting and a different one.” Skepticism still reigned within most MNCs, but within five years of the book’s release, Prahalad said, “many of the concerns have been put to rest…one industry, which has broken many of the myths and cleared the way for profound rethinking about the opportunities at the bottom of the pyramid: the wireless cellular phone industry,” a prime example. “For the first time in history, four billion people are connected,” he said.

Now with seven billion people populating the planet, four billion seems like a large number. However, Prahalad said that “maybe two and a half billion people are BOP consumers” as the book described.

However, Tier 4—those four billion at the bottom of the pyramid—could grow to more than six billion in the next 40 years, creating even more consumers at the base-level, because that is where the “bulk of the world’s population growth occurs.” Thinking that the bottom of the pyramid isn’t a viable market, MNCs failed to consider the “importance of the informal economy among the poorest of the poor.” In developing countries, that economy “accounts for 40 to 60 percent of all economic activity.”

As far as the cellular phone market, Prahalad stated in his Wharton interview that “this dramatic shift in the use of cellular phones and the dramatic build-up of subscribers…is taking place across the world—sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa, Latin America, India, Southeast Asia, and China.” Companies like Celtel, Safaricom, Airtel, Reliance, Globe, and MTN are all making money in these areas. As of 2009, India alone was adding more than 12 million subscribers per month in the cellular market.

Regardless of literacy, the cell phone industry has shown that people can understand the new technologies and use them to their advantage. Prepaid cards have “become the norm in most parts of the world,” moving the industry “away from average revenue per user…to profitability per minute of cell phone time.”

As the late Prahalad said, “BOP markets can be an extraordinary source of innovation.” One such innovation Prahalad mentioned in the interview was “Netbooks—a $200 computer that is selling like hotcakes in the United States,” with over two million sold in 2008. Prahalad states that the idea was to create a “suitable, reasonably sophisticated laptop for poor people in countries like India. So the idea not only is going to work in countries like India, it is also traveling back to countries like the United States and having a spectacular success.”

Companies have also made great strides—often through working with NGO partners, and occasionally governments—in using text capabilities to overcome infrastructure gaps. Programs that text information on weather patterns and commodity prices are helping small-scale farmers, while others are imparting health reminders and patient information to help reduce maternal mortality rates in rural areas.

For MNCs to effectively participate in developing countries, they “need to change business models in order to create new ecosystems” by establishing partnerships at the local level that maximize the capabilities of both sides to create new opportunities.

Without these ecosystems, companies “seeking to source agricultural products or other goods from the bottom of the pyramid face significant obstacles.” The Coca-Cola Company entered into a partnership, creating an ecosystem that allowed the company to source “its juice-processing operations in Uganda and Kenya,” but not without “millions of dollars in foundation funds that were committed to the training and organizing of farmers there.”

Creating a partnership with NGOs and others that understand the customer base is a good way for MNCs to learn more and extend their reach.

In an interview with Times of India in June 2011, Hart stated that Brazil and China have “sizable emerging markets that make them ideal for entrepreneurs and corporates to monetize on BOP innovations.” Hart also believes that India can have a strong presence in BOP innovations, and that “culturally, India has a democratic and free society that makes it amenable to the emergence of disruptive ideas.”

Companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Danone have already begun creating products specific to the Bottom of the Pyramid markets, as well as making those products using either recycled plastics or by creating a new bio-plastic from local sugarcane.

Both Prahalad and Hart have each expanded the original book. Prahalad released The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid in 2004, and Hart released Capitalism at the Crossroads in 2005.