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24 October 2013

NSA all over your internets? No problem: build yourself a new one

For those who want their own digital space there are other networks than the internet.

By Ian Steadman

The picture at the top of this story is a map of the internet from 1983. It’s not that impressive compared to where we are today, post-invention of the World Wide Web, but by this point it had become a very useful network for sharing knowledge among research institutions. At its heart, though, are the connections between computers. That’s kind of all the internet is, and if you really want, you too can create your very own internet.

You can make one quite easily with a mesh network, for a start. Instead of getting yourself connected, via a phone or cable line, to a local exchange (which in turn is connected to the wider mass of wires that encircles the globe), you connect a bunch of computers together wirelessly. Most often this is used as a cheap and flexible way to get isolated communities online when a large ISPs are being slow to install wires.

Buy an antenna that’s pointed towards a public hotspot and get everyone in the village to connect and share the costs. Even if you’re not directly in range of the antenna, you’ll be in range of someone who is, and be able to get web accesss by hopping across. The more people per square mile in a mesh network, the better it gets.

Skip the bit about connecting to the web and focus on the mesh, though, and you’ll get something similar that in Greece. Mother Jones reported from there last month on the Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network, a “private, parallel internet” with more than 1,000 regular users:

Data travels through the mesh at no less than 14 megabits a second, and up to 150 Mbs a second, about 30 times faster than the commercial pipeline I get at home. [They] can send messages, video chat, and trade huge files without ever appearing on the regular internet.

Indeed, the mesh has become a major social hub. There are blogs, discussion forums, a Craigslist knockoff; they’ve held movie nights where one member streams a flick and hundreds tune in to watch. There’s so much local culture that they even programmed their own mini-Google to help meshers find stuff. “It changes attitudes,” Bonicioli says. “People start sharing a lot. They start getting to know someone next door – they find the same interests; they find someone to go out and talk with.” People have fallen in love after meeting on the mesh.

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It’s comparable in number of connections to that 1983 internet, even if it’s used for very different things. But more importantly, it’s had the side effect of becoming a valuable autonomous space.

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The political problems that come from connecting to each other through the internet – hello there, Mr NSA – are a given here, but then there is also a lot of value in this for activists in any part of the world who need to be able to communicate with each other safely and securely. For mass protest movements, these kinds of alternative internets (known typically as “darknets”) are a vital tool.

One example is, a project that was inspired by Occupy Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park occupation in 2011. It’s designed to be loaded onto any old commercial router (in theory) to turn it into a sort of self-contained darknet, where anyone can post a message and leave, to come back later and check for replies. Its creator, Dan Phiffer, writes in Rhizome to compare it to a “zen garden” – but, importantly, one he wants to see eventually become more like a “town square – less tidy, more communal”.

This kind of reaction was always going to be a consequence of turning the internet’s pervasiveness onto the people using it. It can, however, become a bit of a problem once it’s extended beyond the scale of protests or settlements, to the scale of entire nations.

The largest extant example of this probably North Korea, which has its own internal network for students and some of the political elite. Access to the wider world’s internet is only for the very privileged few, although this has meant that the country is apparently the safest of all from the NSA’s surveillance. But there are rumblings from Brazil – as well as a speech at the UN by its president, Dilma Rouseff – that it wants to break the US dominance of the internet in response to the Snowden revelations.

What that means, in theory, is services being forced to locate their servers inside Brazil, to make those companies compliant with Brazilian data protection law, as well as laying down a long-awaited BRICs cable to connect the largest emerging economies of the world. In practice, keeping everything inside Brazil – and all data that comes from elsewhere from travelling via the US – is a tricky technical challenge that could sacrifice some of its strength as a platform.

Perhaps the lesson here is that we can tell when we’ve failed to use the internet to its full, glorious potential when nodes on the network find it necessary to cut themselves off from the rest of us. If the internet is a good thing for humanity, then it follows that our civilisation has screwed up somewhere when people feel afraid of it being used against them.