In the past two months, the world has on multiple occasions seen governments preventing their populaces from accessing the Internet during times of existential political crisis. It’s not hard to characterize the Egyptian and Libyan use of an Internet blackout as a direct attack against the groups that sought and still to topple their political leaders, as the protestors in those countries relied on web-based platforms to organize their protests and inform the world of their plight. But Shervin Pishevar hopes to end any further restriction of Internet traffic with his OpenMesh project.
On its website, OpenMesh says that the will “find the best of breed Open Source Technologies and to build partnerships with existing technologies that would allow us to create a private citizen owned communications infrastructure.” In short, OpenMesh aims to give individuals the tools to remain connected with each other and the world at large without relying on the existing communications infrastructure, that, as demonstrated in the recent unrest in the middle-east, are quite vulnerable. OpenMesh would create an independent, ad-hoc, user-based network that would be far more robust and out of the hands of anyone — government or otherwise — that would seek to restrict communications.
In a guest post at TechCrunch, Pishevar describes such a network this way:
Open Mesh networking is a type of networking wherein each connected node in the network may act as an independent router or “smart” device, regardless of whether it has an Internet connection or not. Mesh networks are incredibly robust, with continuous connections that can reconfigure around broken or blocked paths by “hopping” from node to node until the destination is reached, such as another device on the network or connecting to an Internet back haul. When there is local Internet available, they can amplify the number of people who can connect to it. When there isn’t, mesh networks can allow people to communicate with each other in the event that other forms of electronic communication are broken down. Devices consist of most wifi enabled computers and run on existing Microsoft Windows, Apple OS X, and Linux systems along with iPhone and Android mobile devices. An open source mesh network further offers a scalable solution that retains low costs while avoiding path dependencies and vendor lock-in. Combined with open hardware, these networks facilitate long-term maintenance flexibility and improvements.
The scope of the project is extremely ambitious, not only in technical but philosophical terms.
The technology behind OpenMesh is in the planning stages. Pishevar writes that they have received through donation the designs for low-cost routers and have some key patents essential towards their goals. In the long-run, the organization aims to not only develop the standards and hardware to create these networks, but also hopes to someday strengthen their network by acquiring communications satellites.
Philosophically, the organization is grounded in the politics of the moment, promising to unite people in support of worthy causes. Pishevar names some countries with restrictive internet access by name in the piece on TechCrunch, further tying the project to a larger effort against un-democratic governments. In fact, he concludes his article by saying,
Free communications is an essential human right. The 21st Century will be defined by the idea that no Government, no power shall ever block or filter the right of all men and women to communicate together again. It is my [Pishevar’s] dream that within my lifetime that dictatorship shall be banished from this planet and unfiltered and true democracy shall flourish everywhere.
There is a lot to be said for a robust communication system that doesn’t depend entirely on expensive infrastructure. The U.S., for instance, is currently poised to spend a lot of money on 4G investment to get most of America online and create a national emergency system. OpenMesh might provide an elegant solution, or enhancement, toward that effort. In other parts of the world, communication could become far cheaper and widespread with the system. And it may be that digital communications becomes a modern populist check on government power.
Though very much an fledgling effort, OpenMesh’s roots in today’s politics could be its undoing. “The moment,” is, after all, brief by definition. For instance, the Egyptian Internet blackout seemed to do little in curbing the force of the protests, and in Libya is seemed to be quickly discarded in favor of a violent crackdown. It’s a matter of pure speculation to say what an OpenMesh network would have done for those countries, but the the governments’ attempts to control the flow of information seemed to have little effect.
Pishevar writes about bringing access to everyone all the time, but doesn’t address groups that probably should not have unfettered access to communications. It’s very easy to support popular uprisings where people cry out for democracy, but it can be nearly impossible to always tell the “good” revolutionaries from the “bad” revolutionaries. And there may be other uses for this system. Police monitoring of online traffic has become an important tool in tackling crimes such as child pornography, and is an on-going part of the discussion in counter-terrorism efforts. The creation of a new communications system that, at least in concept, seems to side-step the established infrastructure could provide an outlet for illegal activities just as much as it could foster resistance to oppressive regimes. This may be overreaching, but creating a “shadow internet” will have consequences we can only guess at, and it’s probably best to start considering them now.
As a concept, something like OpenMesh has the potential to patch the holes in the way we communicate with each other. Politics aside, digital communications have changed the way people do everything from cooking to commuting to voting, and reinforcing that capability will improve life for millions or even billions of people. OpenMesh may not be the organization that makes it work, but ad-hoc networks are too good an idea not to happen. What that will mean is another question entirely.
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