When governments pull the plug, the people build a new Internet

How mesh networks could change the Net as we know it

Anti-government protesters surf the internet on a laptop in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. (Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP Photo)

Less than a year and a half ago, the world received a lesson in how vulnerable the contemporary Internet is to top-down control. Faced with ongoing protests organized in large part through social media, the government of Egypt simply turned off the country’s Internet.

As we all know, the move backfired. It let the rest of the world see how authoritarian the Mubarak regime was and caused countless free speech groups–including Anonymous–to rally behind the protesters in Tahrir Square. To this day, the chart showing the country’s Internet traffic all but disappear remains one of the most iconic images of the Arab Spring.

It was also a stark reminder that the Internet is indeed a series of tubes. And whoever controls those tubes, controls the Internet. Even here in Canada, much of the country’s traffic moves through an Internet exchange point. Shut that down, and Canadians would be left in the digital dark.

In the wake of Mubarak’s decision to hit the kill switch, it seems that a number of activists have begun to rethink their approach to net neutrality. No longer content to lobby those who control the existing Internet, they’re trying to create a new one. Whether it’s the “Freedom Towers” that could be found at various Occupy protests, or Reddit users’ Darknet plan, there’s an increasing push towards developing decentralized mesh networks as an alternative to the now-centralized Internet.

Mesh networks kind of resemble what the current Internet was supposed to be: a resilient network of computers all acting as relays for one another. However, in the decades since the Internet’s inception, this vision has failed to pan out. If, like most of us, you’re connected to the Internet via an ISP, your computer isn’t a relay. Instead, its a terminal node, an end point able only to send and receive and only to do so through hardware owned by your ISP. Mesh networks do the opposite; they let the end user’s computer act as a data relay, turning the Internet into a giant BitTorrent, if you will.

Speaking of torrents, even the Pirate Bay has jumped on the mesh networking bandwagon, announcing plans to replace their servers with flying drones free from the threat of state interference. To be fair, this is a rather ludicrous plan that ignores a number of logistical hurdles, but it does bring new meaning to the term “Pirate Radio.”

Realistically, proponents of mesh networking face problems other than midair refueling. For example, independent mesh networks will have to find an alternative to the tightly controlled Domain Name System (DNS) which translates names into numerical IP addresses. They will also have to face the various blights–such as crime and pedophilia–which grow in the absence of light. Lastly, although they may resist government shutdown and corporate throttling, they won’t be immune to the problem of surveillance.

Nevertheless, it looks like the second coming of the Internet may be closer than we think.

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