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Are citizen-run mesh networks the key to an open Internet? Probably not. (Part 1)

Published on 09 September 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

‘Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.’

John Perry Barlow in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace 1996

PRISM surveillance and encoding backdoors, ACTA menace, traffic throttling, censorship and kill-switches, high connection charges… the Internet seems to have digressed from what we hoped it would be: an unspoilt oasis of freedom and prosperity, untouchable by the state or by corporate interests. Can a refuge be found in networks outside of The Network? The PRISM case has once again driven the reactive Internet media to explore possible options for ‘Internet 2’.


One such refuge in popular new technology are ‘mesh networks’ – small ‘intranets’ in which nearby users are connected directly to each other. While in the current Internet model, end-users are connected to each other through the central point (a ‘star’ topology), in mesh networks they are connected between themselves directly. Unlike the star networks where all the traffic needs to go through a single point in order to reach the end-users, thus centralising the traffic flow and making it easier to interfere with – in mesh networks the traffic from a sender flows through other network members, which act as proxies delivering the content to their fellow recipients – which reduces dependence on the single connection point.

Are citizen-run mesh networks the key to an open Internet? Probably not. (Part 1)

(Adapted from here)

Community mesh networks

To create a community mesh network, all citizens need are stronger wireless antennae to connect to their neighbours, and specific pieces of software to route the packages efficiently. Even with improvised antennae made of ‘Pringles’ cans for instance (known as ‘cantennae’) the connection range between any two nodes can reach several to a dozen kilometres. Community mesh networks are not new, but the advance in software and hardware raises performances and enables them to mushroom – and they are established by citizens themselves.

Some existing networks – like the one in Athens – gather several thousands of enthusiasts; in some, internal services like community social networks (i.e. local ‘Facebooks’) are developed. And if they wished, they could, of course, connect to the global Internet: one or more of them would pay the commercial subscriptions to the Internet service provider (ISP), and then share the connections with others; the costs would be split in equal chunks, yielding less per capita than if everyone was to purchase a connection with the ISP.

Can an oasis turn into a global green?

Mother Jones and Daily Dot analysed some of the existing mesh communities and concluded that an unspoilt oasis of freedom and prosperity, untouchable by the state or by corporate interests, is now truly possible! Due to such a decentralised topology and a bottom-up built network, typical causes of users’ frustration on the global Net seem to vanish. Mesh networks may promise to solve the main Internet governance problems:

  1. Surveillance (aka NSA-safe): Centralised surveillance within the mesh network is not possible due to the lack of a single connection point (though it could still be possible to monitor what goes in and out of the mesh to the global Internet). The geeky neighbours might, however, spy on each other occasionally, but this can be solved within the Neighbourhood Council.
  2. Kill-switch and censorship (aka Spring-supportive): As Bonicioli told Mother Jones, ‘When you run your own network, nobody can shut it down.’  Again due to a lack of centralised management of the network, it seems that no revolution or uprising (in the neighbourhood or beyond) could be crippled by a kill-switch or the cutting of communications. Censorship is also out of a sovereign’s reach.
  3. Net neutrality (aka Throttling-safe): As there is no telecom involved with the mesh network, there is no one to throttle the exchange of traffic within it or endanger network neutrality.
  4. Last mile access costs (aka Big-ticket-safe): Even if your local telco has no commercial interest in bringing cable to your distant village, or is overpricing the connection offered – with cheap wireless technologies and a geographically scattered decentralised mash network, the last mile could reach out even to very distant areas.
  5. Intellectual property rights (aka ACTA-safe): No centralised authority to control the file sharing and chase copyright breaches within the network (unless a prosecutor lives nearby and joins the network as well). A peer-to-peer heaven it may be!

Could we then simply boost the mesh networks and connect all of them in a similar mesh way to get the globally green Internet 2?

(What do you think? Let us know before the answer is posted in Part 2)


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