How to Keep the NSA Out of Your Computer

JOSEPH BONICIOLI mostly uses the same internet you and I do. He pays a service provider a monthly fee to get him online. But to talk to his friends and neighbors in Athens, Greece, he's also got something much weirder and more interesting: a private, parallel internet.

He and his fellow Athenians built it. They did so by linking up a set of rooftop wifi antennas to create a "mesh," a sort of bucket brigade that can pass along data and signals. It's actually faster than the Net we pay for: Data travels through the mesh at no less than 14 megabits a second, and up to 150 Mbs a second, about 30 times faster than the commercial pipeline I get at home. Bonicioli and the others can send messages, video chat, and trade huge files without ever appearing on the regular internet. And it's a pretty big group of people: Their Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network has more than 1,000 members, from Athens proper to nearby islands. Anyone can join for free by installing some equipment. "It's like a whole other web," Bonicioli told me recently. "It's our network, but it's also a playground."

Indeed, the mesh has become a major social hub. There are blogs, discussion forums, a Craigslist knockoff; they've held movie nights where one member streams a flick and hundreds tune in to watch. There's so much local culture that they even programmed their own mini-Google to help meshers find stuff. "It changes attitudes," Bonicioli says. "People start sharing a lot. They start getting to know someone next door—they find the same interests; they find someone to go out and talk with." People have fallen in love after meeting on the mesh.

The Athenians aren't alone. Scores of communities worldwide have been building these roll-your-own networks—often because a mesh can also be used as a cheap way to access the regular internet. But along the way people are discovering an intriguing upside: Their new digital spaces are autonomous and relatively safe from outside meddling. In an era when governments and corporations are increasingly tracking our online movements, the user-controlled networks are emerging as an almost subversive concept. "When you run your own network," Bonicioli explains, "nobody can shut it down."
 

THE INTERNET may seem amorphous, but it's at heart pretty physical. Its backbone is a huge array of fiber-optic, telephone, and TV cables that carry data from country to country. To gain access, you need someone to connect your house to that backbone. This is what's known as the "last mile" problem, and it's usually solved by large internet service providers such as AT&T and Comcast. They buy access to the backbone and charge you for delivering the signal via telephone wires or cable lines. Most developed nations have plenty of ISPs, but in poor countries and rural areas, the last-mile problem still looms large. If providers don't think there's enough profit in household service, they either don't offer any or do it only at exorbitant rates.

Meshes evolved to tackle this problem. Consider the Spanish network Guifi, which took root in the early aughts as people got sick of waiting for their sclerotic telcos to wire the countryside. "In some places you can wait for 50 years and die and you're still waiting," jokes Guifi member Ramon Roca. The bandwidth-starved Spaniards attached long-range antennas to their wifi cards and pointed them at public hot spots like libraries. Some contributed new backbone connections by shelling out, individually or in groups, for expensive DSL links, while others dipped into the network for free. (Guifi is a complex stew of charity, free-riding, and cost-sharing.) To join the bucket brigade, all you had to do was add some hardware that allowed your computer's wifi hub to pass along the signal to anyone in your vicinity. Gradually, one hub at a time, Guifi grew into the world's largest mesh, with more than 21,000 members.

"When people see the price they get from the mesh, they're like, 'Ten bucks a month? Oh, shit, I'll pay that!'"

In some ways, a community mesh resembles a food co-op. Its members crunch the numbers and realize that they can solve the last-mile problem themselves at a fraction of the price. In Kansas City, Isaac Wilder, cofounder of the Free Network Foundation, is using this model to wire up neighborhoods where the average household income is barely $10,000 a year. His group partners with community organizations that pay for backbone access. Wilder then sets up a mesh that anyone can join for a modest sum. "The margins on most internet providers are so ridiculously inflated," he says. "When people see the price they get from the mesh, they're like, 'Ten bucks a month? Oh, shit, I'll pay that!'"

READ ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/08/mesh-internet-privacy-nsa-isp

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