Meshnets, Freedom Phones, and the People’s Internet

Egyptian recording on mobile. From NYT.

The course of recent events across the Middle East & North Africa have highlighted both the power in organizing & reporting protest movements using network technologies and the weakness inherent in their corporate & state-controlled architectures. While social media & mobile phones have not explicitly created the revolutions we’re witnessing in Egypt, Libya, & Bahrain and the protests mounting in many other regions, they are making it much easier for collective actions to coordinate, inspire, and outwit the authorities. Conversely, ruling classes are now far more savvy to the threat these tools bring and will quickly act to shut down internet & SMS services that might undermine their authority. The tension in this dynamic emerged in 2009 when Chinese Uighurs in Xinjiang had mobile access removed by the government in an attempt to quell their uprising. And these tactics have played out repeatedly since as design patterns for resistance & rebellion formalize into institutional playbooks.

In this context, mobiles offer immediate & direct communication with allies while social networks offer distributed coordination and instantaneous global reporting. Indeed, the ability to capture and share information across the world is ultimately the most threatening aspect of such hyperconnected protest movements. Social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube empower protesters to be field reporters,capturing atrocities and inviting the rest of the world in to see. It is this universal witnessing that makes a local protest into a global movement. It brings normative pressure from the free world into old and rigid totalitarian regimes. Once such regimes could easily crush uprisings with limited exposure. Now they find themselves cast on the world stage in a glaring spotlight. Dispersed & sympathetic legions of like-minded freedom hawks mobilize around these events lending moral & technical support to ensure their success. Aging dictators wrinkle in the sun as their every word & action is shared & deconstructed by the world at large. And so these rulers move quickly to try and shut down the networks, to hide from the light and roll their rule back into the pre-dawn of geographic isolation.

 And yet the revolution spreads. Mobiles & social networks transmit ideology & emotion, outrage & courage. Everyone wants in on the spectacle and the hope of real change that it invokes. It might not be too hyperbolic to suggest that True Democracy, co-opted and tarnished by Western realpolitik, so often used as an excuse to prop up the very dictators who’ve held these people in fear for decades, might break out through the networked world, demanding its due and even resuscitating the anemic corpus of the American protest movement.

But this assumes many things. Douglas Rushkoff and others have begun to point out the relative weakness of the internet and of mobile networks. Corporate choke points quickly buckle under government pressure and the threat of national security. So people naturally look for ways to build resilient networks that can resist the hunger & fear of power. Ways to route around the censorship.

Of course, revolutions are not the only things that need resilient ad hoc networks. Increasingly, large-scale construction projects require on-site network support, with or without internet backbones. Emergency relief, as we saw in the Haiti earthquake in 2010, also require fast response to restore communication networks. Any sufficiently large regional disaster could knock out communications & database access leaving first responders in the dark and victims & families struggling to find help & relief support. It’s important to understand that these services require local networks but don’t necessarily require internet access. In emergencies its critical that quickly-scalable ad hoc regional networks can be deployed to restore basic communications and access to necessary information, be it status updates or institutional knowledge bases.

Venessa Miemis has a great round-up of the many players in this field, highlighting 16+ Projects & Initiatives Building Ad-Hoc Wireless Mesh Networks. From her list its impressive how many groups are working on solving these problems.

Mobile phones are a valuable infrastructure that often gets overlooked in discussions of resiliency. Everyone has a phone so everyone is a potential node. Research in wireless meshnets that use mobile phones instead of carrier backbones offer localized solutions for resilient networks. If a city loses it’s carrier support, if AT&T & Verizon are offline, mobiles can default to a lilly-pad model where voice & data move from phone to phone, hopping across the community through wireless overlaps. The phone becomes the hot-spot and a personal IP address. This allows information to pass from across the mobile meshnet until it reaches an internet uplink, such as a Meraki node. In this manner individuals can still coordinate resources & activities if, say, an earthquake or a dictator has taken mobile carriers & ISP’s offline, and can hop to a strong wireless uplink outside the range of blackout.

To look forward, local mobile meshnets could be used as distributed processing clusters, like a SETI At Home for mobiles. Consider the processing power latent across a city of 20 million mobile subscribers, such as Tokyo. As smart phones integrate more diverse sensors, mobile meshnets could be addressed as distributed sense platforms, analyzing air quality, for example, or deputized as camera arrays. [Klint Finley expands on this idea over at ReadWriteCloud.] Consider what could be done with an API for addressing clusters of mobile sensors. [Update: Imagine the types of shared augmented reality experiences that might be possible across localized mobile meshnets… eg bands could push experience layers out to their audiences during concerts – any venue could run a layer that would automatically sync with a user’s phone/headset when they entered it’s radius of activity.] When mobiles have the ability to firewall from selected authorities or create opt-in experience zones users might develop incredibly sophisticated tools for distributed in-field utilities. Of course, so might criminals and insurgents… and regimes.

There’s a tremendous amount of work advancing these technologies. The events in the Middle East & North Africa, coupled with the creeping authoritarianism and neglect in western countries, are lighting a fire under innovators to figure it out. Likewise, major mobile manufacturers are exploring this space to anticipate consumer demand and create differentiating features to compete in the impacted & accelerated smartphone marketplace. The internet & mobile communication have rapidly proven themselves to be indispensable to the lives of billions of people. Any efforts to exert power and authority over them on a mass scale while run into fierce challenges born from the simple nature of human ingenuity & adaptation. And yet, there are many reasons we should not take such access to mobile communications and the internet for granted.

John Gilmore’s famous quote (and Mark Pesce’s analysis) applies here: The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it. Whether that censorship comes from corporations, dictators, or acts of god is immaterial.

[Update: Check out the World Community Grid for crowd-sourced cluster computing. Would be great to see them include mobile when the tech catches up…]

[Definitely read this Tech Crunch post, Humans Are The Routers, by the founder of the Openmesh Project, Shervin Pishevar.]


  1. @am2233

    This looks promising, not least because the US military is participating: “A Cell-Phone Network without a License” (being an unlicensed interstitial scrounger type by nature, the idea is very appealing).

    Also if you’re not already I suggest keeping an eye on Dave Winer @dwiner (father of blogging, podcasting, RSS) and his compadre Jay Rosen @jayrosen_nyu (journalism prof embracing change).

    I first got access to the Internet before the WWW was invented. I had to learn some VAX to manage my local account and some UNIX to deal with The Well. Today, reading someone live-tweeting a speech, and trying to sort out what’s going on right now in Libya mostly via text media, brings those days back.

    I suggest that to create a new, more robust system we may well need to go back well before YouTube. I also suggest that much innovation could and likely will come from the vast numbers of people who have very little income but do have SMS-enabled mobile phones. Even rich-world folks like @GreatDismal might prefer such simple devices (he was looking for a recommendation the other day).

    I sympathize with the social media sceptics regarding MENA; Al Jazeera being far more important. The role of radio may play a much greater role than we know now given how cheap it is to access, to produce in local languages and dialects, and to distribute widely.

    This is my Big Idea (and I may well be wrong): what happened in Tunisia and then Egypt was the sudden appearance and success of an entirely unanticipated new narrative, the narrative of leaderless mass revolt directed at achieving a lowest common denominator goal.

    My hunch is that MENA tyrants focused on blocking organizations such as labor unions, political parties or NGOs because they believed that these were the only means by which alternative leaders could arise, and that the tyrants (and the population) believed that only such leaders could mount a real challenge. No one, neither those at the top or the bottom or in between, could conceive of the consent to be governed being withdrawn suddenly by large masses of people in the absence of a positive goal (support for a leader, institution or ideology) rather than a negative goal (“we demand removal of the regime”) — positive and negative being descriptors not value judgments of course.

    I guess my point is that rather than looking to replace the Net, we might be better off looking back to ham radio, Fido and Usenet for a start. The simple telling of stories, the basics of spreading the news, is not trivial. Along with this it seems we could use a new network built for security from the ground up for critical infrastructure, and the tech could well overlap. No reason the good ol’ Net couldn’t keep on keepin’ on with its LOLcats, BMW ads, Newsbeast, AOLHuffPost.

  2. chris arkenberg

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, @am2233.

    “..what happened in Tunisia and then Egypt was the sudden appearance and success of an entirely unanticipated new narrative, the narrative of leaderless mass revolt directed at achieving a lowest common denominator goal.”

    I think this is an important observation and one I hadn’t previously considered. To me, it speaks of a certain infancy in the social empowerment of the masses. We are empowered enough to force change but not yet organized enough to architect the next platform. Or perhaps this is simply a natural course, rather than any embryonic phase: emotion leads intellect. We tear down the systems that oppress & anger us, then figure out how to replace & rebuild. Amidst all the cheerleading about eg getting rid of Mubarak there is little popular consideration for who might replace these dictators… what power vacuums are opened. We are caught up in the emotion of freedom & revolution. perhaps too much to rightly consider the consequences of such freedom.

    Also to your points about lo-tech resiliancy I saw this interesting post on Boing Boing today about a resistance group in Libya using Fax machines to direct people to open comm channels.

    Thanks again for your comment.

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  4. @am2233

    The issue for Tunisians and Egyptians is how to accommodate the welcome division of “negative” forces into “positive” institutions that can engage the public and create “politics” as opposed to “regime.”

    The powers that be will do what they can to discredit, subvert, pervert and otherwise influence this process. They will play as dirty as they did when they paid thugs to attack non-violent demonstrators, and when they incited patriots to attack all foreigners and especially foreign media. The conflict will be no less real though lacking telegenic street battles.

    “…emotion leads intellect…” Disagree. I believe people are advancing their interests via rational calculation, that of the least common denominator. My best guess from so far away, with such limited means of grasping the realities of so many, is that emotion is inseparable from surmounting fear, but the drive to reach that crux was and is borne of a rational desire for less corruption and greater respect for the dignity of all.

    This via AJE from a month ago is worth considering.

    Yasmine Ryan, “How Tunisia’s revolution began”

    Great to see you’re in touch with @davewiner (botched his twitter handle earlier).

    Somebody said of him recently, Winer wants to empower the user. He came right back with: No more users, we’ve all got to be sysadmins.

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