R.U. Sirius has interviewed Aram Sinreich of Mondo.net, one of the more ambitious attempts to restore a true autonomous internet.
His colleague Valkyrie Ice has a very good introduction to the issues at stake:
“If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, I’m sure you’ve heard about the “Declaration of War” by Lulzsec and Anonymous. Regardless of what you think about their actions, it should be obvious that there has been a growing effort by large corporations and governments to recreate the internet in an image completely alien to its original intentions – that of a robust decentralized network which no amount of damage could bring down. DARPA’s original designs have been sidetracked by various groups trying desperately to eliminate a “free and open” network model in favor of centrally controlled, corporate owned, authoritarian “walled gardens” in which your every move is tracked, your every file is subject to the central authorities approval, and your every action with your own possessions is monitored to ensure you’re not doing something a company disapproves of. The corporations have no desire to allow the masses a future in which information is not monitored, metered, charged for, and always in the control of the corporations.
In order to do this, they need the networks to be centralized, run entirely through systems in which every bit of data transmitted back and forth from the end user to the internet is subject to their scrutiny and approval. Due to the manner in which the net has developed using existing infrastructure, there are many bottlenecks which have made this effort possible, from cell phone towers that ensure that smartphones are routed through bandwidth limiting servers that meter per second access and looks for ways to charge customers for “overuse” to broadband services who inspect every packet of information to prevent you from downloading movies and songs. Even the FBI wants the ability to search your computer remotely.
So while I am uncertain of the utility of “cyberterrorism,” I can certainly see the need for methods to prevent the “digital frontier” from becoming a “virtual prison” and to encourage a return to that robust decentralized vision created by DARPA.
That’s pretty much what these guys at MondoNet are about and I think their words say it pretty clearly:
“Although the Internet is highly decentralized in its communication and social patterns, its technical and regulatory foundations are extremely hierarchical, due to centralized control by organizations like ICANN and the oligopolistic ownership of the access business by a handful of broadband ISPs and wireless carriers (Wu, 2010). As a result of this centralization, digital communications are compromised by a degree of surveillance and censorship that would be unthinkable in traditional social arenas, threatening our cyberliberties and “e-speech” rights (Sinnreich & Zager, 2008).
“Seemingly disparate issues like network neutrality, intellectual property treaties and national security measures, taken in combination, threaten to produce a communications environment in which innovation is stifled and normative cultural behaviors are criminalized and punished by censorship, fines and/or imprisonment. One potential solution to this problem would be to create a new communications platform based on existing Internet protocols, but with a decentralized infrastructure free of the bottlenecks and chokepoints that plague the current system. Specifically, this new infrastructure would use mesh networking technologies to produce a stable, ad hoc global wireless network in which each peer is a router, server and client combined, and in which no single state or organization can effectively censor or surveil the population on a massive scale.”
If you’ve never heard of a mesh network, or don’t understand the technical jargon, it basically means that every “device” — be it a smartphone, computer, or other internet connected device — “talks” to every other device, instead of to a “tower” or to a “server.” In other words, instead of talking to an “ISP” or “Carrier” who stands between you and the internet, your device will simply be part of the internet.
In the current infrastructure, if you want to call your friend, your device can’t just call up your friend. First it has to call up to a centralized, corporate controlled network. Then it has to confirm that it is allowed on that network and receive approval to use that network. Then it has to ask permission to create a connection to your friend, and verify that your friend is allowed access to the network, has not been banned from the network, and is connected to the network instead of a different network. Then, it will finally be allowed to create a connection, subject to monitoring from the central network. In a mesh network, your device would simply go to the next nearest device and then on to the next, and so on until it made a connection to your friend, over hundreds of different paths that it would turn into a “virtual private network” in which everything you and your friend say is inaccessible to anyone but the two of you because your data would be being sent along too many different paths to intercept.
Mondo.net again does a fantastic job of summarizing the principles of such a network:
The network should not be operated, maintained, or in any way reliant upon a single or minimally differentiated set of entities or technologies. No individual, entity or group should be central to the network to the extent that their absence would measurably impact its functionality or scope. Network participation should not require access to fixed, physical infrastructure of any sort.
2. Universally Accessible
The requisite technology and expertise required to participate in the network should be available at minimal cost and effort to every human being on the planet. Furthermore, all users should be able to extend the network’s content and functionality to suit their own needs, or those of others. No aspect of the network’s functioning should be reliant upon proprietary technologies, information or capital.
The network should be resistant to both regulatory and technical attempts to limit the nature of the information shared, restrict usage by given individuals or communities, or render the network, or any portion of it, inoperable or inaccessible.
The network should enable users to choose exactly what information they share with whom, and to participate anonymously if they so desire. Users should only have access to information if they are the designated recipients, or if it has been published openly.
The network should be organized in a way that minimizes the risk of malicious attacks or engineering failure. Information exchanged on the network should meet or exceed the delivery rate and reliability of information exchanged via the Internet.
The network should be organized with the expectation that its scale could reach or even exceed that of today’s Internet. Special care should be taken to address to the challenge of maintaining efficiency without the presence of a centralized backbone.
The network’s density and redundancy should be great enough that, despite its ad hoc nature, it will persistently operate on a broad scale, and be available in full to any user within range of another peer.
8. Fast (enough)
The network should always achieve whatever speed is required for a “bottom line” level of social and cultural participation. At present, we assert that the network’s data transfer rate should, at a minimum, be enough for voice-over-IP (VoIP) communications, and low-bitrate streaming video.
While the network will have the capacity to exchange information with Internet users and nodes, it should be able to operate independently, as well. A large-scale failure or closure of Internet infrastructure and content should have minimal effect on the network’s operations.
The network should be built with future development in mind. The platform should be flexible enough to support technologies, protocols and modes of usage that have not yet been developed.
The question then is this: Why should you care?
And I’ll be honest here. I see mesh networks naturally evolving to become the dominant form of network over the next few decades, because it’s the most practical solution to a number of problems that will have to be solved in order to build the VR web as well as to connect the entire world to the internet. Centralized networks are only possible in highly developed countries with existing infrastructures like power and telephone grids, as well as roads. You can’t build a tower where you don’t have either power or access. For vast areas of the world, mesh networks will be the only feasible solution. As handheld devices get cheaper, smaller and use less power, and batteries become able to store weeks or month’s worth of power for them, they will become the world’s primary means to access the internet. As billions of devices begin attaching to the net, they will overwhelm any centralized system. At that point, it will be much simpler to use them in a mesh than it will be to try and build sufficient infrastructure to meet demand. A mesh network can grow as fast as you add a new device to it. And unlike traditional networks, it auto-updates itself as users discontinue using older devices and switch to new ones. It also will eliminate bandwidth issues as thousands of paths will allow data streaming at the limits of the devices own hardware. As we move past the multimedia age and into the VR age, the need for vast amounts of data to be transferred will force the abandonment of centralized systems that simply cannot handle the load for robust multispectrum wireless networks that are more akin to P2P torrents than today’s cellular networks. Technology advancement itself is going to ensure we will move to mesh architectures in the very near future. So why, really, should you care?
Because the sooner we begin working towards developing these peaceful, innovative, and practical solutions to the threats of authoritarian control of the worlds developing nervous system, the less need we will have for “Cyberterrorists” like Lulzsec and Anonymous to cause disruptive attacks that hurt the innocent and the guilty alike in a fight to preserve our freedom to access information. And that is a goal I think every side can agree on.”