Friday, 30 September 2011

Fear of Repression Spurs Scholars and Activists to Build Alternate Internets

Computer networks proved their organizing power during the recent uprisings in the Middle East, in which Facebook pages amplified street protests that toppled dictators. But those same networks showed their weaknesses as well, such as when the Egyptian government walled off most of its citizens from the Internet in an attempt to silence protesters.

That has led scholars and activists increasingly to consider the Internet's wiring as a disputed political frontier.

For example, one weekend each month, a small group of computer programmers gathers at a residence here to build a homemade Internet—named Project Byzantium—that could go online if parts of the current global Internet becomes blocked by a repressive government.

Using an approach called a "mesh network," the system would set up an informal wireless network connecting users with other nearby computers, which in turn would pass along the signals. The mesh network could tie back into the Internet if one of the users found a way to plug into an unblocked route. The developers recently tested an early version of their software at George Washington University (though without the official involvement of campus officials).

The leader of the effort, who goes by the alias TheDoctor but who would not give his name, out of concern that his employer would object to the project, says he fears that some day repressive measures could be put into place in the United States.

He is not the only one with such apprehensions. Next month The­Doctor will join hundreds of like-minded high-tech activists and entrepreneurs in New York at an unusual conference called the Contact Summit. One of the participants is Eben Moglen, a professor at Columbia Law School who has built an encryption device and worries about a recent attempt by Wisconsin politicians to search a professor's e-mail. The summit's goal is not just to talk about the projects, but also to connect with potential financial backers, recruit programmers, and brainstorm approaches to building parallel Internets and social networks.

The meeting is a sign of the growing momentum of what is called the "free-network movement," whose leaders are pushing to rewire online networks to make it harder for a government or corporation to exert what some worry is undue control or surveillance. Another key concern is that the Internet has not lived up to its social potential to connect people, and instead has become overrun by marketing and promotion efforts by large corporations.

At the heart of the movement is the idea that seemingly mundane technical specifications of Internet routers and social-networking software platforms have powerful political implications. In virtual realms, programmers essentially set the laws of physics, or at least the rules of interaction, for their cyberspaces. If it sometimes seems that media pundits treat Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg or Apple's Steve Jobs as gods, that's because in a sense they are—sitting on Mount Olympus with the power to hurl digital thunderbolts with a worldwide impact on people.

Instead of just complaining, many of those heading to New York next month believe they can build alternatives that reduce the power of those virtual deities and give more control to mere mortals.

I was surprised by the number of homegrown Internet projects described on the Contact Summit's Web site—though most of them are not yet operational, and some may never be. Among the approaches: an alternative to Facebook that promises better privacy control; a device that automatically scrambles e-mail and Web traffic so that only people authorized by the user can read them; and various mesh-network efforts that can essentially create an "Internet in a suitcase" to set up wherever unfettered Internet access is needed.

Whether you see these techies as visionaries or paranoids, they highlight the extent to which networks now shape nations.

"Anyone who cares about human rights anywhere should dedicate themselves to building these systems," is how Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, put it when I asked him about the trend.

Bazaar 2.0

One organizer of the Contact Summit, Douglas Rushkoff, compares the disruptive power of the Internet to the impact of bazaars in the Middle Ages.

In his latest book, Program or Be Programmed (OR Books), he argues that the earliest bazaars helped transform feudal society by allowing vigorous information sharing—a low-tech peer-to-peer network. "Everyone was speaking with everybody else, and about all sorts of things and ideas," he writes. "All this information exchange allowed people to improve on themselves and their situations," allowing craftsmen to form guilds and share techniques. "As the former peasants rose to become a middle class of merchants and crafts­people, they were no longer dependent on feudal lords for food and protection."

The Internet has created a bazaar 2.0, says Mr. Rushkoff, accelerating information exchange and giving people the power to organize in new ways.

At least so far. Mr. Rushkoff argues that companies and governments are gaining too much power, in ways that could limit communication in the future. Facebook, for instance, is a centralized system that forces users to run communications through its servers—and, he observes, its main goal is to make money by analyzing data about users and sharing that information with advertisers.

"The Internet that we know and love is not up to the task of being both a fully commercial network and a people's infrastructure," Mr. Rushkoff told me. "The Net is not a marketing opportunity—it's something much bigger than that."


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