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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Upheaval in Egypt shows need for free network

We are all witnesses, living through the first great social upheaval of the 21st century. Throughout the Middle East, people are seeking to rid their nations of oppressive government, of corruption and of the anti-democratic forces that have long plagued their region. In so doing, they are employing today’s new, Internet-based communications technologies. From Jan. 25th to Feb. 2nd, the authoritarian government of Hosni Mubarak mandated the shut-down of communications networks inside Egypt, and virtually complete disconnection from the global network. He shut down the network in order to thwart protests that were being organized via online media, and he was forced to turn it back on because of the serious economic damage that was being dealt to his nation.

This turn of events has lent credence to two of the Free Network Movement’s most deeply held beliefs: the first is that the Internet is a tool of empowerment that will change the world, and the second is that the Internet is no longer a luxury, but a necessity and a human right.

The Internet has provided the mechanisms necessary to trigger upheaval on a global scale, and to sustain it through the fastest, broadest, and most democratic form of communication humanity has ever known. If the Mubarak government could pull the plug on this technology in Egypt, we must consider what recourse we would have if similar events were to transpire in the United States.

In response to proposed legislation which would grant the President of the United States the ability to commandeer, control, and shut down the network, Wired Magazine has published a wiki called “How to Communicate if Your Government Shuts Off your Internet”. One of their final suggestions is that we might want to “have an air horn or other loud instrument handy”. While Freenet affirms that making noise is a valuable means of communication, our priority is to make sure that our voices cannot ever be reduced by some oppressive regime to the muffled bark of a megaphone.

To this end, the Free Network Movement is hard at work building a mesh network in Grinnell. The advantage of the mesh architecture is that the network is distributed and localized. As things stand, if some Grinnellian wants to send a Facebook message to Gabe Schechter in the SGA offices, their message has travel all the way from Grinnell to the Facebook servers, where it can be read by any interested party with access to the server. From there, their message has to be sent all the way back down the network hierarchy from the server to Gabe’s computer.

Now, let’s pause for a second and consider the reality of today’s Internet: privacy is non-existent, we have no autonomy. Communicating through infrastructure that is owned and operated by corporations subjects our expression and identity to the greed-drenched agenda of parties whose interests assuredly differ from our own.

A mesh network would shorten the path that this Grinnellian’s information would have to travel to reach it’s destination, and in so doing provide very real benefits to its users. Every computer in a mesh network serves as a “node,” and information passes from computer to computer, eventually reaching its intended destination. This is a much harder network to shut down, because it is decentralized–that is, it provides for many paths through which information might travel, instead of just one. The decentralized nature of the network means not only that the network cannot be extinguished, but that it cannot be monitored.

Building a mesh network in Grinnell means taking the first step towards autonomy, self-determination, and sovereignty in the epoch of the network. The newfound prowess with which we all communicate imbues us not only with privilege, but with a mandate, in this new world, to take care.

-Isaac Wilder ’13 & Jacob White ’14

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