Since the NSA spying controversy broke last summer, true online privacy seems almost laughable. Life in the 21st century seems to be a tough choice between putting up with Big Brother or retreating to a log cabin to hash out your manifesto (longhand, no doubt). But what if there was a third choice—what if you could sidestep the NSA by building your own internet? As it turns out, that idea’s not so far-fetched, says Clive Thompson in Mother Jones (Sept./Oct. 2013). In fact, it’s already starting to happen.
The idea began as a solution to the “last mile” problem—the fact that connecting web users at the far reaches of a network is ridiculously expensive for all involved. A decade ago, would-be users in rural Spain got sick of waiting around for telecoms to connect and overcharge them for web access and began thinking of alternatives. They hit upon the community mesh network, a kind of co-op internet where DSL, public hot-spots, and long-range antennae take the place of conventional broadband and wifi. And it worked: Today, Spain’s Guifi network is the world’s largest mesh with more than 21,000 users—many of them enjoying faster internet at lower costs than those of us still relying on an ISP.
Unlike a traditional hub-and-spoke network, where users connect independently to a central access point—think AT&T—a community mesh network connects users to all other users nearby. So instead of everyone consuming data from the same source, mesh users share everything they receive with those in close range—what Thompson calls the “bucket brigade” approach to internet use. Sometimes this means sharing access to conventional servers in far-off places; other times, it means creating an entirely new internet from scratch.
And as it turns out, all of this makes Big Brother’s job a lot harder. The NSA may have tabs on millions of email accounts and browsing histories, but they don’t have a PRISM program for mesh networks. Surveilling or shutting down a community mesh isn’t impossible, but it’s hydra-like design makes it much more complicated. And that has activists and net neutrality advocates excited. Networks may be small, but the potential for a truly free and open internet is there.