How to Build a Shadow Internet

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Learning about the academic and military origins of the Internet as a way to keep communicating, even after a nuclear event, thrilled me as a teenager back in the '90s. And yet the Egyptian government shut the Internet down last year.

Techno-geek activists around the world want to prevent that from happening again.

Flipping the Internet switch in Egypt only took several phone calls and about half an hour to do. In the current issue of Scientific American, writer Julian Dibbell takes a closer look at activists in Vienna, Washington, D.C., and New York who are creating a shadow Internet.

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"The Internet’s explosive growth," Dibbell wrote, "has not added new routes to the network map so much as it has added cul-de-sacs, turning ISPs and other traffic aggregators into focal points of control over the hundreds of millions of nodes they serve." Internet service providers, therefore, become the kill switch.

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To bring the Internet back to its original aims, activists are setting up local, decentralized "mesh networks" by installing wireless routers on rooftops. Each user can send and relay information on behalf of other users, Dibbell explained. Projects such as Commotion Wireless and FreedomBox want to get affordable, easy-to-install equipment out there to make more of these networks, increasing the number of nodes.

Since mesh networks still ultimately connect back to an ISP, shutdown will still affect the network, slowing communications down. However, as Dibbell noted, the mesh "shadow" network would continue to route information around primary hubs. At worst it would be like an Internet brownout, instead of a blackout. The more nodes in the mesh network, the harder it will be to kill.

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Mesh networks aren't an easy answer, either, because they require regular folks to become technogeeks. They also pose some interesting privacy and legal questions. But the beauty is that all kinds of hardware, including smart phones, could be equipped with emergency mesh networking capabilities.

Back in the dawn of the dial-up era, I read an article in Wired about Serbian student activists using smuggled equipment, shaky Internet access and mirror sites to fight the Milosevic regime and get their stories out. Inspired, I emailed myself, starting new friendships that continue to this day as well as a new respect for the power of DIY technology.

When it comes to Internet access, where there's a will, there should be a way.

Credit: Emlyn Addison

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