The World Wide Web grew up on the ideals of freedom and open cooperation. It has provided us with a hugely valuable resource which has empowered ordinary individuals, provided a platform for the voiceless to share their thoughts and opinions, defended free speech and massively increased our media choices and our access to information, and has allowed new virtual communities to spring up and for grassroots groups and activists to organize themselves.
Because the web is fundamentally a community of networked computers linked together, it has proven particularly effective for developing social networks, and has been built up by the community of its users themselves rather than a central controlling authority. Its own organization as we see it is spontaneous and free, growing organically over time from the contributions of many people. In a very real sense it is a community driven enterprise which is built by the people, and belongs to the people. This is both its power and its beauty.
But the freedom of the internet is increasingly coming under attack from governments, and to a lesser extent big business, who see the freedom and 'ground up' community organisation of the world wide web as dangerous and undesirable.
Over the course of this article I will look at some of these threats to internet freedom, and why they are important. I will also suggest that part of the reason why governments are so easily able to take control over the internet lies in its military origins.
Big Brother and U.S. Government Surveillance
Edward Snowden recently revealed to the world the massive extent of US government surveillance over the internet. The NSA has been monitoring the internet habits and communications of most of the world, from ordinary people to politicians, activists and businesses.
If you think that this is just about monitoring criminals and terrorists then you are sadly mistaken. The NSA's own rules allow them to monitor 'three degrees of separations' from a suspect. That means not just the suspect, but the people they are talking to, and the people that those people are talking to, and once again the people that they are talking to. For the average suspect this would encompass 1,334,978 individuals - roughly the population of the US state of Maine. It should be clear that when all the people connected in this way to a suspect are taken into account, the NSA is effectively monitoring the entire population of the U.S. and most of the population of the world.
In Latin America evidence has emerged from the Snowden revelations that the NSA is also targeting the 'commercial secrets' of businesses.
Anger has also been high in Europe, after it emerged that the NSA was spying on German chancellor Angela Merkel and other top politicians.
We are now living in the 'Big Brother' society described in the dystopian vision of '1984' author George Orwell.
Internet Censorship - No Longer Just for Dictators
Equally as insidious as the mass surveillance of the NSA is the growing trend for governments to censor the internet. One of the greatest things about the internet is the way it can give anyone free access to information and the freedom to express their own opinions.
We are used to thinking of internet censorship as being something that happens under dictatorships. The 'great firewall of China', which blocks citizens from accessing information that they communist government does not approve of, is the classic example. But today the free speech and free access to information provided by the internet is increasingly coming under threat from democratic governments.
Fortunately a global campaign which included an internet blackout supported by major websites prevented US government attempts to censor the internet using concerns over intellectual property under the SOPA legislation from going through.
The UK, however, has just brought in a wide ranging censorship program under the guise of protecting children from porn. The so called 'porn filter', which forces all internet users in the UK to opt-in to be able to access 'hardcore pornography' and other 'objectionable content' (including anything about suicide, 'extremism', and even alcohol and smoking). There has been little real opposition to this because on the surface it seems quite reasonable to say that 10 year olds shouldn't be watching extreme porn, which is the way it is always presented to the public. Unfortunately most people are not aware of exactly what this filter will and won't block - and this ignorance makes the censorship even more dangerous.
Here are some examples of content which has been shown to have been blocked by the UK government's new 'porn filter':
- Gay and Lesbian community / culture sites.
- Sex education materials
- Suicide prevention services such as the Samaritans
- The NSPCC (A child protection charity)
- Childline (a service abused children can contact to seek help)
- File sharing websites
The reason for this is because, contrary to popular opinion, there is no software program in the world which can reliably recognise pornography or other 'objectionbable content' (which itself is so vague it could include almost anything). So any content which talks about sexuality is liable to get lumped into the same category. Likewise, no software program can tell the difference between the 'suicide sites' which the government wants to block, and suicide prevention services, or between sites promoting or depicting child abuse and sites trying to prevent it.
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Perhaps the most dangerous part of this program, however, is the precedent which is sets - the idea that governments and their corporate partners (the ISPs) should be able to decide what content people are and are not allowed to access. Also, there are very real concerns that anyone who chooses to opt-in to receive this content will find themselves on a government list of people to place under extra surveillance.
As Martin Robbins points out in The New Statesman, there is also no evidence that the porn filter will provide any positive benefits:
If their first sight of a vagina traumatizes your teenage child, then you have brought them up wrong - but of course the problem here is often the parent more than the child; the embarrassed mother of father – projecting their own feelings of discomfort and embarrassment around the topic of sex onto their child. There remains, despite a wave of public hysteria, no good evidence that porn has any detrimental effect on children.
What clearly does have an impact on children though is denying them sex education, suppressing their sexual identity, and shutting off access to child protection or mental health charities.
Big Business and Threats to Net Neutrality
Big business is also trying to take control over the internet for their own benefit. ISP's are already prioritizing traffic on behalf of select, paying clients. But they want to go even further, potentially charging customers extra for different types of content. You can read more about this on 'The Open Internet'.
The Internet is a Military Experiment
NSA is helped by the fact that much of the world’s communications traffic passes through the US or its close ally the UK – what the agencies refer to as “home-field advantage”. - http://www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2013/nov/01/snowden-nsa-files-surveillance-revelations-decoded#section/3
The way that the internet is constructed makes it particularly vulnerable to monitoring and control by central authorities, whether government or big business. To understand this it is necessary to understand that there is a big difference between the internet and the world wide web. The free, open and community driven characteristics described at the top of the page all belong to the world wide web - not the internet itself. The internet itself is essentially a US military control system.
The internet is the physical connections between different computers and the method through which information is communicated along these connections. It was invented by the US military, and grew from there. It is highly centralized and organized in a 'top-down' way, as befits its original purpose - as a military command and control system. The internet is all of the behind the scenes structure which makes the world wide web function.
The World Wide Web is what we have done with the internet. It is your email, all of the websites and apps you love, and everything else that we generally refer to as 'the internet'. The WWW was invented by an academic called Tim Berners-Lee, who gave it to the world for free because he thought we might like it.
The centralized structure of the internet, in which the majority of communications pass through a small number of machines and down a small number of cables (called 'backbones'), leaves it highly susceptible to government control, and makes the small number of companies who control this traffic much more powerful than we realize. But crucially - we don't need to use the US military's internet to have a world wide web - there is an alternative.
An Introduction to Mesh Networks
There is no technical reason why the world wide web could not be migrated from the military inspired internet to a community driven and community owned meshnet.
This would make government surveillance, control and censorship much more difficult, and would shift power away from the big internet service providers and communication networks, and give it back to ordinary users.
In a mesh network there are no giant central nodes, and no giant 'backbone' cables which carry all of the traffic. Instead, each individual device which joins the network as an internet service user effectively becomes a minor, local, internet service provider as well. Each part of the network communicates with each other device within range, passing along signals and sharing connections to servers providing services. The best way to visualize a mesh network is to think of it as being like a web - in fact, the structure of a mesh network closely mirrors the structure of the world wide web itself.
The idea of creating a community owned mesh network as an alternative to the military internet first started to grow in popularity during the Arab spring. During this time democratic revolutionaries found that their governments were shutting down the entire internet in order to prevent people from using its power to organise against their dictatorial governments. Technologically savvy activists realized that the current structure of the internet made this remarkably easy for governments to do, as control over a small number of central structures effectively gave the government control over the whole internet. So they set about trying to create an alternative which would deny their government the ability to control and shut down the world wide web in this way.
One such initiative, born out of the Egyptian revolution, is the Open Mesh Project. Although this project has been slow to make progress, it has provided inspiration to others in similar circumstances. Since then, short term 'pop up' mesh networks have been deployed by charities in disaster zones and war zones, and the idea of a mesh network providing a free, censorship and surveillance resistance network as a 'new internet' has started to gain ground. A range of projects have now been started with the aim of helping this to happen.
Mesh Network Initiatives
A set of tools which anyone can use to start building their own community mesh network.
- Project Meshnet
Creating an alternative internet called 'hyperboria' built up from small community networks, which also offers members free access to the regular internet.
- The Serval Project
A mesh networking project focussing on providing free communications technology in remote locations and to underprivileged communities.
- WikiStart - Open-mesh - Open Mesh
Open source tools and information for creating mesh networks.
Free Internet in Australia
Cryptocurrency and the New Internet
It seems like just weeks ago that I first wrote this article, but since then things have moved quickly and a whole raft of new possibilities have opened up.
You may have heard of Bitcoins, and the various other virtual currencies or 'cryptocurrencies' which are now competing for attention. What you may not have heard is that the basic underlying technology - the innovation which made Bitcoin possible - could also lead to the creation of a new peer to peer internet.
The problem with peer to peer networks, you see, is that everybody wants to take and nobody wants to give. If you try to create a new internet based on this model then as soon as you started getting the general public interested you would have lots of people wanting to use the services, and very few people willing to put in the time, effort and expense to maintain it.
One solution to this which is just starting to emerge as a possibility is to build a P2P mesh network on top of, or alongside a virtual currency. Instead of 'mining' for new coins as happens with Bitcoin (which is very wasteful), people could provide valuable services to users of the network and be rewarded with a share of the newly created virtual coins.
Several projects are already being launched to do exactly this; check them out:
- Maidsafe - The 'SAFE Network' aims to offer Secure Access For Everyone with a censorship resistant decentralized network run by 'farmers' who will contribute disk space, bandwidth, processor power and other resources in return for 'Safecoins'; end users will then be able to use Safecoins to buy things like cloud storage, website hosting and so on.
- Ethereum - A very ambitious project to create a next gen cryptocurrency with a wide range of applications.
- Namecoin - By far the most well developed, although arguably the least ambitious project; already has an alternative domain name and website hosting system up and running and tied to its coins.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.