0

Texting turns 20, U.N. group begins talks over Internet control

Text messaging has officially been around for 20 years.

On this day 20 years ago, a British engineer named Neil Papworth typed out "Merry Christmas" on a computer and sent it to the cell phone of a guy at a Vodaphone holiday party. This is said to be the very first SMS text message. The idea was conceived eight years earlier by a guy in Finland who didn't patent it -- with predictable financial results. 

You may think of texting as a wasteland of "wassups" or LOLs. But let's remember on this anniversary: they are also an agent of social change. Texting, for instance, is used to alert families about when to get their shots. Hillary Karasz works with the office of public health in King County, Washington. 

"It's personal, it's in your pocket; people love their phones, they're always on," points out Karasz. "It's ubiquitous. There are more phones that are text message capable than there are people in this country."

MAMA, the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, has a system where women in developing countries can sign up to get texts to help with pregnancy. 

The program, says MAMA's global director Kirsten Gagnaire, works "to help them take care of their health during pregnancy, know when and how to seek care, and how to give care to their newborns."

The organization is in Bangladesh, South Africa, and is just starting in India. Unlike most media, texting singles out individuals and -- by getting the timing right -- it can get health advice to people who don't even have a phone.


As we've been reporting, late last week the Internet went out in Syria. It was largely restored over the weekend. The government, battling rebels, has blamed "terrorists" for the outage. Others believe the government itself pulled the plug.

Cell phone service was also degraded but for those who could get calls out, Google and Facebook are working together to act as a sort of global message board via Speak2Tweet. The service records phone messages and tweets out the audio. 

While Syria and its people are in the grips of a military conflict, a debate begins in Dubai over the extent to which governments will have the authority to reign in, shape, and tax the Internet. The International Telecommunications Union used to be a sleepy place for setting telephone standards. But this week's closed-door meetings -- under the auspices of the U.N. -- could define the rules for the web for years to come. 

"As a matter of law, each national regulator today could cut itself off from the Internet; could decide to charge for communications coming into their country," says Susan Crawford, visiting professor at Harvard and telecom policy expert at New York's Roosevelt Institute. "They have this power now; the risk is that the ITU meeting makes it more of a norm for countries to do that, and as a result it's more difficult for speech to cross borders." 

Whether or not answers become clear this week, we'll be following the ITU meeting and the potential consequences on what comes out of it. 

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio
Log in to post0 Comments
With Generous Support From...