Can mesh networks help in the struggle for democracy?

Lung wi rd 27 September

This blog was first published on the on 16th October, 2014.
Come writers and critics
Who prophesise with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’
Who that it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win…
-Bob Dylan, The Times they are a changin’. (1964)

Democracy activists on the streets of Hong Kong were told last week that they were wasting their time and that they had ‘almost zero chance’ of achieving their goals of free and fair elections in 2017. There is no doubt that the odds seem stacked against this protest movement as they face down the might of Beijing.

Thousands remain on the streets however, even in the face of physical attacks from the police and counter-protest groups. As the days pass and the eyes of the world continue to be drawn to Hong Kong, the options for a resolution narrow. One path may see the Chinese government using its might to make it harder for the protests to continue; they may continue to deploy police or the military to break up the protest.

Another route may see them shutting off communications.

In that event, activists might have to rely much more on mesh network communications. Andrea Peterson in the Washington Post describes a mesh network as ‘a sort of daisy-chain between devices using Bluetooth or WiFi capabilities, allowing for people in the same area to connect directly with one another or band together to cast a wider net’.

The point being that you replace the need for a centralized telecommunications infrastructure with one structured around nodes – people’s phones, tablets and laptops.

Firechat is the mesh network application de jour, having been downloaded almost half a million times in Hong Kong; but there are others including Commotion, Serval, and the Open Mesh Project

Although still embryonic, these projects are potentially very disruptive for governments, Internet regulators and mobile phone companies. They may also act as free speech enablers. Mesh networks ‘can help preserve privacy and free speech, since it is harder for governments and other bodies to tap into these networks,’ says Akash KJ writing in the IB Times in April this year.

Harder, but not impossible. Many – including the creators of Firechat – have recently admitted that these mesh networks are unencrypted and do not offer users high levels of protection from people wanting to snoop on group conversations.

While reading the content of the conversations on mesh networks might be relatively easy, actually shutting them down might be more complicated. As Primavera de Filippi writing on puts it ‘Compared to more centralized network architectures, the only way to shut down a mesh network is to shut down every single node in the network. That’s the vital feature, and what makes it stronger in some ways than the regular Internet.’

In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of NSA surveillance on private citizen’s communications via the Internet, a new, mesh-network, community based internet seems like a very appealing prospect.

The rise in prominence of Firechat comes about as the question of who governs the Internet becomes more and more critical. Listen to what Fadi Chehadé, head of the Internet Corportation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), said just last week: ‘I find myself in a unique point in history where either we will be able to succeed as a human race, almost, in maintaining the Internet as a platform for solidarity and for economic progress, or, frankly, we will fail.’ He goes on: ‘we want Internet governance in a distribute[d], polycentric way, as opposed to a centralized, top-down way.’

These sentiments appear to gel with what a mesh-network Internet might offer. De Filippi argues that: ‘It’s the fact that [a mesh network] provides a means for people to self-organize into communities and share resources amongst themselves: Mesh networks are operated by the community, for the community. Especially because the Internet has become essential to our everyday life.’

This has a few implications for those fighting for democracy in different parts of the world today.

First, it represents an opportunity to take back some control over how we communicate with each other. There is limited evidence that the Hong Kong protests are being organized through mesh networks but as the technology evolves and becomes easier to use it may become a great way for cheap, peer-to-peer organizing in times of repression.

Second, like all technology, it is not foolproof. It will certainly break and can be hacked or spied upon by those intent on closing civic and media space. Its use must therefore be complemented by the rudimentary heavy lifting of civic organization and discipline that are the hallmarks of almost all successful nonviolent movements in history.

At a much broader level, future mesh network technologies raise the prospect of a much broader engagement between citizens living in remote, rural communities that suffer from an absence of mobile phone and traditional internet coverage. This means that all voices, not just urban elites, can be brought into debates about democracy, governance and well, just about anything.

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One Response to Can mesh networks help in the struggle for democracy?

  1. Pingback: Dramatic scenes in South Africa’s parliament during Zuma’s 2015 State of the Nation Address | democracy in a hostile world

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