A FreeNet Manifest: five steps to liberation

What follows is a roadmap—Freenet’s plan to free the network. We see a future in which every member of humanity has access to the flood of information that we have come to take for granted. This document describes how we can achieve that vision in five stages. This document lives online in The Commons at the Freenet site, http://www.freenetworkmovement.org/. Your comments and feedback are more than welcome.

Stage 1: The Co-op

Stage 1 consists of the emergence of network access cooperatives. Stage 1 has already begun, so instead of speaking hypothetically, we will tell you what it looks like on the ground. We can’t be entirely sure of the legality, but we are sure of the justice. Here in Grinnell, the Free Network Movement has built a mesh network that we call grinnellMIND. A mesh network is one in which computers connect to one another, instead of central servers. The benefit of grinnellMIND is that it allows us to share a single internet connection amongst physically disparate locations. We and many others could use mesh technology to purchase Internet access cooperatively, thus driving down the amount that each of us pays. We imagine that some day, the entire town of Grinnell will purchase access cooperatively. That day has not yet arrived, but we think it is on its way. This struggle for collective purchasing will have to happen in many towns and cities, the world over. It will have to happen for city blocks and subdivisions, in residential towers and intentional communities. This won’t be easy to accomplish, especially when telcos catch wind of what’s going on. Still, the obvious economic advantage to the end user (reduced cost) makes this an easy sell to the people.

Stage 2: The Digital Village

The unseen benefit of the aforementioned co-ops is that they wrest the terminal nodes of the network away from the control of the telco/ISP hegemony. This provides for the opportunity of network applications that are truly peer-to-peer. At first, this will only be able to happen within each isolated cooperative community. Imagine that Grinnell (or some other town) makes shared use of a few pipes, whose flow of information is distributed across the last mile via mesh. Now imagine that each node of that mesh network is a Diaspora pod running a codebase that is specifically designed for use in mesh networks (this is in development, but a ways off). People will still have to rely on the big pipes for access to the wider internet, but to pass each other messages and participate in social networking, at least within the town of Grinnell, we will have achieved a truly peer-to-peer architecture. Thus arises the digital village. What used to be just a co-op for purchasing access has suddenly become a community that is able to share information directly with one another.

Stage 3: Towards Unity

Stages 2 and 3 are separated here for clarity, but it seems likely that stage 3 will begin shortly after stage 2, and take place concomitantly. Stage 3 is quite simple. It relies on a technique called packet tunneling, in which two machines can establish a point-to-point, encrypted link via the Internet—in essence, a secure tunnel through which information can pass. Using packet tunneling in concert with the existing global network, we can simulate the contiguity of geographically disparate digital villages. Suddenly, people all over the world are able to communicate and share information with one another directly. Of course, at this stage, the corporate giants still own the internet backbone, the spinal cord of the global data network—this is why we can only say ‘towards’ unity. No uprising until Stage 4, please.

Stage 4: A Backbone of our Own

Stage 4 is when the dream of true co-ownership becomes a reality. We are already starting in on what needs to be done here, because it’s a pretty tall order, and will take some time. In Stage 4, we replace the corporate-owned fiber backbone with a backbone of our own. We believe that this will be accomplished via either a constellation of telecommunications satellites or the construction of HF or Whitespace radios, which operate much like powerful wi-fi. This won’t come cheap, but its cost pales in comparison to the invisible costs of the status quo. From this point on, the only cost that anyone would ever have to pay for network access would be the cost of a mesh node. These nodes are already in our homes and dorm rooms. Any device that is wi-fi enabled can act as a mesh node, given the right suite of software. Still, not everyone will be able to afford a node, which is why our struggle will not end with Stage 4.

Stage 5: A Human Right

Once the Mesh Interface for Network Devices is global, we can focus our energies towards providing a node to anyone who wants one. We believe that access to the network is a human right, and this is our vision for supplying it to all of humanity.