An infrastructure to protect free E-Speech

Aram Sinnreich and Masha Zager have written an excellent overview article that describes the dangers to free digital speech.

Amongst the danger listed and described are:

* Searches without warrant
* Network Neutrality
* Asymmetrical Internet Access
*Walled Garden approaches

They then discuss counter-strategies, dismissing the first one as impractical at the present stage, presumable because the weakness of the social movement that would impose it.

Here are their 2 strategies, and it is the second one that they, and we in our excerpts, will focus on:

• Laws that strictly protect digital privacy and net neutrality, deter abuse of market power, and encourage investment in new ultra-broadband technologies; or

• User-owned or unmanaged networks with very-high-speed connections.

Since building an individual infrastructure is unfeasible and too expensive, they focus on collective provision of alternative access infrastructures.

Adam and Masha write:

Different organizations are inching toward it from different angles, and if we can take the best aspects of each approach, an e-speech solution might emerge. Here are four of the partial solutions being proposed:

1. Customer-owned (or controlled) fiber or ‘private condo fiber’:

Customer-controlled fiber helps attract ISPs due to the low investment costs and high degree of customer loyalty.

In Canada, CANARIE—the public/private organization that runs Canada’s advanced research network—is trying to jump-start a residential condo fiber project. Bill St. Arnaud, CANARIE’s chief research officer, asked residents in an Ottawa neighborhood whether they wanted their own fiber connections to the Internet; about a third said they did. He then convinced a business fiber provider to run a trunk line through the neighborhood, and to agree to run a connection to the nearest Internet POP for any neighborhood resident who could pay about $1,500. He also worked out a complex financing scheme (he calls it “green broadband”—don’t ask) to make the fiber easily affordable for those who can’t buy it outright.

At the POP, customers will have to connect their fiber to an ISP’s equipment. In theory, customers can choose among ISPs. But there’s a slight hitch: As of this writing, no ISPs have agreed to participate.”

2. Public condo fiber:

Many Swedish cities operate publicly owned systems that work in ways similarly to the CANARIE scheme. These municipal fiber networks are open to any ISP—some have dozens of competing ISPs—and the operator will run fiber to any building where the owner pays for a connection. Individual homeowners finance their fiber connections by adding around $10 to their monthly mortgage payments (a better investment than granite countertops in terms of resale price). As in the CANARIE plan, customers can decide whether and when to install the fiber; once connected, they can change ISPs at the click of a mouse

3. Net-neutral ISP’s

A company called Copowi (short for Community Powered Internet) was launched in 2007 as the first strictly “net neutral” ISP. It now offers broadband services in 12 Western states over DSL lines wholesaled by Verizon, AT&T and Qwest. Copowi promises not to block, degrade or modify data or to discriminate for commercial advantage on the basis of source or destination—with exceptions for necessities such as spam prevention and, of course, law enforcement. It also provides encryption for e-mail and Web surfing, both to help users protect their privacy and to make it more difficult for network owners to implement non-neutral access.

After a year in business, Copowi has about 4,000 customers, according to founding partner George Matafonov. Eventually it would like to partner with more network owners or even to build its own networks, but first it needs to develop a larger subscriber base, which isn’t easy for a niche player.”

4. Wireless Mesh Networks

New “mesh” wireless networking gear—which lets people share Internet access something like BitTorrent lets them share files—has made it easy and inexpensive to create decentralized networks. Wireless mesh networks are now being used in locations as diverse as low-income housing projects, Indian reservations and South African schools. Citywide (or nearly citywide) mesh networks are being built in places like San Francisco and Urbana, Ill. Internet access becomes much less expensive because neighbors can share a commercial DSL connection in the same way that co-workers in an office do.

However, mesh networks tend to be less decentralized in practice than they are in theory, and for technical reasons any really large mesh network seems to require a degree of structure and management. And even a decentralized mesh network is dependent on an ISP to communicate with others outside the neighborhood.


In their conclusion, the authors write that none of the solutions is perfect (they explain why here), and therefore offer these provisional recommendations:

If wireless devices were ever to become powerful and prevalent enough for the mesh to replace much of the Internet as we know it, every mobile phone and laptop could become a voluntary peer in a global community of equals, without oversight or restrictions. Alternatively, if virtualization, a technology that slices up computers into multiple “virtual” machines, is ever successfully applied to the hardware at the Internet POP (right now it’s busy transforming the corporate data center), we could conceivably all afford to be our own ISPs someday. But the limitations of current technology—as well as the opposition of ISPs and telcos, fighting to fend off what they see as a doomsday scenario—make these blissful utopias unlikely anytime soon.

In the meantime, keeping in mind our mantra of “e-speech,” we can continue to push federal regulators and access providers to support net neutrality and lower their garden walls, and we can continue to experiment with new models for community-owned and decentralized access. Most important, however, we have to remain aware of our civil liberties in the Digital Age, and to realize how easily—and invisibly—they can be removed. “

1 Comment An infrastructure to protect free E-Speech

  1. Pingback: 21st Century Spirituality · Hyperstream of 2008-10-31

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