Smartphones, filters and free expression
Padraig Reidy: Smartphones, filters and free expression
17 Aug 12

A recent World Bank report, Maximizing Mobile, offers some startling facts on the spread of mobile technology.


“…in some developing countries, more people have access to a mobile phone than to a bank
account, electricity, or even clean water. Mobile communications now offer major opportunities to advance human development—from providing basic access to education or health information to making cash payments to stimulating citizen involvement in democratic processes.”

There are now over six billion mobile phone subscriptions in  the world: even allowing for the many multiple subscribers, it’s feasible that everyone in the world who wants a mobile device will have one in the near future.

It is more appropriate to say “mobile device”, because the days when these things were used mainly for the making and receiving of phone calls is long gone. “Phones” are now used for a variety of purposes. This is particularly true in the developing world, where, in large swathes, desktop technology has been bypassed, and feature phone and smartphones now fulfil a huge amount of functions.

Smartphone sales were up 43 per cent in the second quarter of this year, despite a 2 per cent decrease in the overall sales of mobile devices.

While this boom is happening all over the world, a debate is raging in the UK which could have a significant effect on access to information in the developing world. Mobile phone companies here routinely filter web content considered “sensitive” for under-18s. Earlier this year, the Open Rights Group report Mobile Internet Censorship: What’s Happening and What We Can Do About It noted:

“We think there are a number of serious problems with how these systems work. These include a lack of transparency, mistakes in classifying sites the difficulty of opting out of the filtering. Together, these problems mean that people often find content blocked when it shouldn’t be.”

Well quite. On my own previous phone contract, I was unable to view this very site, which, while occasionally discussing controversial topics, is not exactly a hotbed of vice.

Sensitive information we now can get blocked also includes health advice, a massive issue in the developing world. If we accept the blunt instrument that is smartphone filtering, then there is no reason why phone companies would not make the technology universal. Which may be acceptable in the developed world, with our myriad ways of accessing information. But in parts of the world dependent on the mobile device, we could be denying information to people who need it most.

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.