The internet as we know it is under threat as never before. Surveillance, government censorship and secret corporate power plays threaten to destroy the Internet as a free and open platform for communication.

Much of the problem originates from the fact that the Internet has become ever increasingly centralised. In recent years, powerful encumbered players and elites have seen their power threatened, and have systematically attempted to “manage” the internet.

Communication and the free flow of information is too important a thing to allow to be threatened in such a way, so is it time that the citizens took control?

Citizen network

So, here’s a few thoughts on what this might look, and what I would like to see.

What I’d like to see are a range of local mesh networks grow up, providing free local connectivity to users. Initially, these will be highly local, but as the edges of the network expand, they’ll start to see other local networks and automatically negotiate routing between them. For networks further afield, perhaps an edge node which also has internet connectivity could provide a tunnelled link over the wider internet.

Hard encryption should be baked in, rather than added as an afterthought, and the network should aim for a situation where no unencrypted traffic is seen.

It should be possible to construct this sort of network with inexpensive and freely available hardware and software; perhaps, for small areas, a network of wifi repeaters, and for larger links perhaps a mixture of technologies – inter-network radio or microwave links, or even laying of fibre depending on the budget of those involved.

The goals of these networks should be to provide free access to anyone, and freedom for anyone to run a node on the network. With any luck, this will eventually kill the ISP business, and, in the UK at least, break BT’s stranglehold on connectivity.

There are a few local net projects about of course (they’re quite popular in Greece, apparently), but so far I don’t think we’ve seen much of an attempt to build them elsewhere, or to connect them together.

It’s a big job, but we built the Internet once, could we do it again?

Edward Snowden’s exposure of the illegal mass surveillance of basically everybody conducted by the NSA and GCHQ, has and is still causing international political fallout. Hijacking diplomatic flights and using anti-terror legislation to intimidate journalists, aren’t doing much to help matters.

Glyn Moody suggests that, given the widespread abuse of communication technology by the security services, campaigning to get everyone online may not be such a good idea.

Here’s my response:

People shouldn’t necessarily throw away an entire technology just because a few (thousand) bad apples abuse it. As technologists, what this means is that we need to build in safeguards (encryption, obfuscation, anonymous routing etc etc) which make such abuses impossible in the future.

This is already starting to happen (almost every other post on Hacker news these days is some new product that solves one part of the puzzle).

Everyone can do something:

Joe User can do some simple things – install the EFF’s HTTPS Everywhere plugin, and use email encryption (if we can make encryption ubiquitous then we make the PRISM/Tempora kind of abuse much much harder).

Network admins can do things like move their DNS over to OpenNIC (a drop in replacement domain name system run by volunteers outside of government control, often without any logging of queries) and use DNSCrypt to encrypt lookups.

Coders can look at throwing their weight behind an open source project – perhaps add encryption support to their favourite mail client (or make the UX easier), or take a look around at some of the decentralisation projects going on (particularly worth looking at the #indiewebcamp community).

Basically, we need more engagement, not less. Decisions are made by those who show up, and as Tesco put it, “Every little helps” :)

What are your thoughts?