The history, present status and future potential of the Network Commons

Excerpted from Armin Medosch:

“At the moment of the demise of the New Economy, a new cycle started with new projects and new ideas. In London in the year 2000, and in Athens independently from London, two years later, movements started to build wireless community networks. Using a license exempt part of the electromagnetic spectrum and Wifi – Wireless Local Area Networks — network enthusiasts built their own networks. Based on the property of the Internet protocols that allow creativity at the edges, they could create networks of their own. Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network was initially started mainly by technology experts. They knew about other initiatives, such as Seattle Wireless, but developed their own “technological style”. Using the urban topology of Athens with its hills and cooperation with radio amateurs, they could create a network that covered a vast area, the Attica peninsula and beyond. The social model was based on the liberal utopia of individual ownership. Each node was built and maintained by its users, all the nodes together formed – and continue to do so – a network commons. The particular idea of AWMN was that it did not offer Internet access. Some nodes were connected to the Internet but this was not publicized as a reason to join the network. The idea was that the network builders would together create a network which would be attractive to its users because of its services. Services offered include mirrors of free software repositories, file sharing, streaming services, games, voice over IP and much more.

Consume in London proposed a slightly different idea. Informed by experiences with Backspace, a net art creative hub in central London, the idea was to have synchronous broadband networks which offer also gateways to the Internet. The net should become a shared resource, both as an Intranet and as a network that connected with the wider world. Backspace, initiated by James Stevens, was a place that allowed many initiatives to thrive, where people could realize their own projects, people such as artists Rachel Baker and Heath Bunting. But it also hosted the Vulcano free film festival, a website for a transgender-cyborg club, and a festival for Buskers (street musicians). A particular noteworthy initiative that emerged from Backspace was Indymedia London. On June 18th 1999 a global “Carneval against Capitalism” was organised by the collective Reclaim the Streets. This protest brought together the multitudes – a new social class that substituted the working class as a new social subject. The size of the protest took police by surprise, and also the decentralizing tactics of protesters, marching out in three different columns, so that for several hours the City of London, the seat of multinational financial capital, was taken over by protesters dancing to samba drums. It was a happy day, until a police van drove over a woman who was seriously injured. This afternoon was filmed by artist activists, among them Austrian multimedia artist Manu Luksch. Couriers cycled back and fourth between the sites of protest and Backspace, where video tapes were transcoded and live streamed by techno-activists such as Gio d’Angelo. Half a year before Seattle, where Indymedia was officially founded, Backspace had become an Independent Media Centre which presented a different viewpoint on the protest of the Multitudes against financialized capitalism. While mainstream media focused only on the police’s failure to keep control and the stupid acts of a minority who smashed some windows – possibly police agent provocateurs anyway – the videos streamed from Backspace showed a different reality, a Bakthinian carneval, where the multitudes became aware of its political agency and its mass creativity as a form of opposition against bureaucratic capitalism, the grey men and women of the City of London.

To cut a long story short ? for a fuller account I have to refer you to my forthcoming text “Shockwaves in the New World Order of Information and Communication (Wiley-Blackwell 2016) – we saw a relatively short period of the prospering of Consume in London and the UK, where the network commons was merged with ideas by avant-garde digital artists and media activists.

In 2002, the Consume idea was transplanted to Berlin, Germany, where able technician-activists started the initiative Freifunk (free radio). Freifunk adapted the Consume idea to German reality. There were two issues: on one hand, there were areas in East Berlin and East Germany, which could not get ADSL connections for broadband because of the existence of proprietary fibre optics technology of the telecom incumbent. So this was a big motivating factor. Secondly, Berlin in particular and Germany in general has a large reservoir of what I would call ethical hackers, creative free software people, who are happy and willing to carry out free voluntary labour. Those two factors allowed Freifunk to spread rapidly, so that within a few years Berlin alone had more than 1300 free radio nodes and many more users. However, after a phase of rapid growth in the early 2000s, this development slowed down in the second half of the 2000s, some networks even started to shrink. The Deutsche Telecom had recognized the issue with its fibre optical technology and pushed other broadband technologies such as ADSL and cable. Freifunk was no longer needed to get affordable broadband Internet.

At around 2003, started in the rural area of Catalunia, near the small town of Vic. At the time, it was impossible to get broadband Internet in the villages. An initiative started to build wireless community networks. developed around similar ideas of AWMN, Consume and Freifunk, but with a number of differences. It set itself the explicit goal to bring good internet service to the highest number of people at the cheapest price; it developed a system where people could pay technicians to install a network node. did not see this as in contradiction with the idea of the network commons. As long as the nodes built by small service providers joined the network commons, the fact that some money was paid for installation was not an issue. This idea enabled to grow more rapidly than any of the other systems. It now stands at 30.000 nodes.

The projects just described constitute the counter-thesis to the network model offered by the ISP and telecom corporation with their centrally managed operations and their practices of metering and controlling the data flow in their networks. The atomized ethical technologist recognizes him or herself as a community networker who becomes a builder, owner and maintainer of a network node. Those network nodes together form a network commons, a network, where each node transports data according to the original Internet utopia, in two-way synchronous forms, without any discrimination between types of data and users. The network created by the community networker realizes the decentralized utopia. Its political structure was, depending on your viewpoint either anarchist or libertarian, an abdication of centralized control, but also a rejection of strong social regulation mechanisms. While some of those networks have created some form of legal entity, an association for instance, the association usually does not create the network. It does fund-raising, and it is there to assist in fending off political and legal challenges, but it does not own and run the network.

The technological and economic foundation of those networks, however, rest on the production mechanisms of advanced capital exploiting global imbalances and cheap labour. Advanced capitalist production methods using automated machine labour and cheap energy, mainly derived from fossil fuels reduce the socially necessary labour time to such a degree, that people in the capitalist core countries are freed up to devote their time to innovation practices and to participate in peer-based-commons production. The beautiful achievements of the network utopia are built on silicon sand, since those conditions are subject to change. The boom and bust of the New Economy was followed by a relatively mild recession in the early 2000s. New ideas about a commons based economy started to flourish.” (

* Current Status

“The Automatic Utopia of Mesh Networks and the Social Development of Technologies At around 2004, citizen technologists from Freifunk in Berlin and Funkfeuer in Austria started to experiment with the mesh network routing protocol OLSR. Mesh network routing protocols such as OLSR and BATMAN and its recent variations are special routing protocols, optimized for the conditions of wireless networks. They do not need manual configuration, but automatically recognize when new nodes join the networks or existing ones drop out. Their capacity to automate route-finding allows the development of fixed and mobile wireless ad-hoc mesh networks.

The rise of the network commons in general and the development of mesh network protocols by the community in particular illustrate that technologies are inherently social. We have been made to believe that the development of technology is somehow autonomous, that technology follows a course of its own and that people have to adapt to the technologies that are created by corporate research labs and universities, who are often closely interlinked. Yet the development of wireless community networks in Athens, London and Berlin followed trajectories of the social development of the communities it was connected with, communities of practitioners (the ethical hackers who write the code and build the networks) but also the social structures those technological developments are embedded in, which includes the communities of users, but also wider social structures. This can have positive and negative consequences.

The Consume way of developing networks, for instance, was strongly emphasizing workshops and local knowledge. Through those workshops people came together and formed ideas about how to grow the network locally and to what uses to put it. In the process as such, the technology became socialized. Non-techies, like me, became knowledgeable about technology, started to understand networking technology better and began proselytizing about those social technologies. As such knowledge spreads, it contributes to the demystification of technologies. In capitalist societies, technologies are mystified. Technology is surrounded by an aura of being complex and difficult to understand. This creates the fetishized believe in technologies which makes people think that they are either ruled by technology or that they can solve any problem by technology alone. The technologies are understood as things outside us that have a power over us. But once we take developments into our own hands, we learn that those objects are man-made and relatively simple. The overall social complex that produces those objects and how they are deployed in the fabric of society, these things are much more difficult to understand. As we become techno-social communities we discover that the development of a technology is not separated from the social sphere but influenced and guided by it.

The developers of mesh network protocols in Berlin, Vienna and Catalonia first analyzed the needs of the wireless community networks and found an answer. In order for those networks to spread and become more efficient, they thought they needed to create firmware that would contain mesh network technology. Based on the Linux firmware distribution OpenWRT, each of those communities developed their own firmware. With so called firmware flashing, the firmware on a cheap WiFi router can be replaced by a high-end free firmware running mesh network technology turning a piece of industry hardware into, as Freifunk called one such hack, a “Freedom Box”. It is without doubt that community networks have been key drivers of the development of wireless mesh network technology.

As Elektra, one key developer in Berlin put it:

“The sleeping beauty of mesh network protocols has been kissed awake by the community networks”

No company, corporation or university has been as efficient and as good in developing those protocols than the community networkers. Those developments, as beautiful and commendable they are, also have several dark undersides. First, the distributions and the mesh network protocols are all open source. That means that everybody can use them, change them, as long as they publish again the source code. The technology of mobile ad-hoc networks has originally been developed by the US military. There is no doubt that those circles are watching what is being done and that the code produced by ethical hackers potentially can find entry into new weapon systems that deploy wireless mesh networks in the battle field, especially as military technology is becoming ever more automated and autonomous. The peer-to-peer based methodology of ethical community hackers offers no way of resisting this form of adaptation.

Secondly, the achievements of open source hackers have also no resistance against being appropriated by the advanced forces of informational capitalism. The freedom on the level of infrastructure gets harnessed on the application layer for commercial gain, by Google, Facebook and other players. The activities of community hackers, guided by an ethical sense, contribute to an economy that creates ever more inequality.
Since the network commons does not exist in a political and economic vacuum, the achievements of community networkers are of a temporary kind only and always in danger of being reversed – the negation of the negation. We can say that wireless decentralized community networks are the antithesis to the broadcast model of communication. Rather than one-sided flow of commands, they allow egalitarian two-way communication. Yet the ethical hackers often claim to be apolitical. They say that they are not interested in politics, they just care for the politics of technology. As long as the network is held in a commons, and every packet of information is routed freely, the hacker’s utopia is in good order.

In the past, when non-techies such as me encountered a problem, hackers used to tell me RTFM: Read the fucking manual. Now I tell techies also RTFM: Read the Fucking Marx.

The mesh network utopia is an automated utopia. You take the device, you flash it and up you go. The idea was promoted that firmware with good mesh routing protocols would make it easy to create large scale ad-hoc communities. Indeed, the technology has matured and technically speaking, the utopia is a utopia no more, it is here and real.

In recent years, Freifunk in Germany has experienced rapid expansion. After the revelations of Edward Snowden about the scale of surveillance by governments with the complicity of informational capital a second wave of German community networkers has become active. Those groups have developed their own firmwares, using mesh network protocols, but they do not share the anarchist spirit of the original Freifunk cell. They are growing, and at a very fast speed, but the question remains, what is growing here. Through the use of mesh routing protocols, the user does not need to do anything at all. The automatic utopia creates mesh networks, but the users are left behind. The type of knowledge transfer envisioned and practiced by Freifunk and Consume does not take place anymore. Some of those new networks have become like veritable service providers, they even have the capacity to update the software on all routers from remote.

Mesh network technology, rather than becoming the boon of community networks, tends to reinforce the separation between producers and consumers, between network builders and those who just passively use them. Rather than engaging with the network commons, they enjoy whatever commercial services they receive from the Internet, which itself has become thoroughly commodified. The new Freifunk initiatives have even started to call the groups who started Freifunk “legacy”. In software development legacy is something you need to acknowledge exists and may still be in use so you have to offer backward compatibility. But at some point you will start to consider if you still want to offer backward compatibility or if you simply detach yourself to offer faster growth and greater efficiency. A new generation who has never known anything else but neoliberal informational capitalism follows the patterns of the start-up mentality and of a competitive commercial environment. In this environment, mastering the technology becomes a pretext of commercial success and mastery over other people.

The network commons is embedded in the current political economy and exposed to its force fields. Athens Wireless Metropolitan Networks are suffering from the general economic and social crisis in Greece. Since the model of network freedom they have chosen is based on liberal capitalism, which means individual node ownership and responsibilities, the network deteriorates, as some node owners are affected by the economic crisis and cannot maintain adequately the rather high-tech installations they have built.

The impact of the overall social development on the wireless utopia reaches a particular poignancy in Global Cities such as London, where the city itself is subject to rapid change. As gentrification moves through the districts of London like a wildfire, people have to move to ever more remote areas (or abroad). The maintenance of a community and a network becomes an impossibility. Donating free voluntary labour becomes ever more difficult when rents are so high that you are working day and night just to keep a roof over your head. The urban space itself becomes completely reshaped by a form of aestheticized hipster consumerism. As the open culture of the Internet becomes substituted for the closed commercial world of Apps, and the cities ever more saturated with bandwidth on commercial mobile frequencies, the conditions for a sharing culture deteriorate.

The network commons is also threatened by practices such as Wifi off-loading practiced by mobile telcos. Whenever a phone detects a free open WiFi network it uses that rather than its own infrastructure. Commercial providers thus contribute to the tragedy of the open spectrum commons. Other threats are of a political nature. A new EU directive has been released which would make firmware flashing illegal. Although mesh networking appears to have solved the technical issues, the network commons is in peril through political, sociological and economic threats.”

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