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New political tool: text messaging

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Since the government has yet to find a way to efficiently filter cellphones, its only defense was to send its own text-message, urging people to follow the law and maintain order.

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The technology represents a challenge to the government. After the Tiananmen protests, Chinese authorities passed laws requiring that all demonstrations be preapproved by local public-security agencies. "Now, one can use SMS and e-mails to organize a large-scale protest without asking government permission," says Qiang Xiao, director of the Chinese Internet Project at the University of California at Berkeley. "Today's Chinese youth have much more powerful communication tools in their hands."

Text messaging has also widely affected the Middle East. In March, citizens of Lebanon used e-mails and text messaging to organize a huge rally in Beirut, drawing together 1 million demonstrators to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops and the resignation of the government. Late in April, due to pressures from the United Nations and mass anti-Syrian demonstrations, 14,000 troops finally pulled out, ending Syria's 29-year presence in Lebanon.

In Kuwait, women mobilized in record numbers to rally for the right to vote. Unlike past years, this year's protests have been much more effective because text messaging allowed Kuwaiti demonstrators to pull young people out of school and into the streets, according to press reports. Their efforts paid off. Kuwait passed a landmark amendment in May, granting women the right to vote and to run for parliamentary and local council positions.

Of course, text messaging can also land in the hands of terrorist groups. Al Qaeda has been using mobile communication to organize. There also have been cases where text messaging has led to violence, as in Nigeria during the Miss World pageant in 2002, when more than 200 people were killed in riots. "I don't attribute good or evil to mobilizing," says Rheingold. "In fact, when it comes to elections, you want people to think and deliberate. You don't want people to vote impulsively."

But activists are cautiously hopeful that technology can continue to puncture holes in societies where free expression is limited. North Korea, among the most isolated regimes in the world, could be the last frontier for cellphones. Since 2003, there has been an influx of Chinese cellphones smuggled in despite government efforts to ban them. Reportedly, some 20,000 North Koreans can call relatives in China, make business transactions, and follow foreign news. For a nation fed only on government propaganda, a cellphone can be a key link to the outside world. Human rights activists, who for years have been smuggling in radios to break the regime's wall of misinformation, are also eyeing the new technology.

"With radios, it takes many hours of airtime to convince North Koreans that there's something else out there," says Douglas Shin, an activist who has helped North Koreans fleeing the country. "But with a cellphone, it can take one call to change someone's mind."

Brief bits of chat

In 1992, engineer Neil Papworth reportedly sent the first text message - "Merry Christmas" - to his colleagues at Britain's Vodafone. The rest is history, as young people have taken to tapping out short messages of no more than 160 characters on cellphones and other mobile devices. For example:

• Text messaging has exploded in many countries. Americans send nearly 7 million messages an hour, but that's small potatoes compared to, say, Britain. With only a fifth of the US population, it manages to send half that number every hour.

• Dentsu, a leading ad agency in Japan, is using the technology to market to consumers. So are spammers.

• Music fans sent 2,060,385 text messages in their bid to get tickets for London's Live 8 concert next month, making it the largest text-message lottery so far.

• Concerns remain - from doctors, worried about the health effects of typing with thumbs, to educators, who wonder what will happen to English if teens keep typing "RUUP4IT?" on tiny screens.

Sources: US Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association; UK Mobile Data Association; Guinness Book of Records; news reports.