This is a guest post from Cole Stryker, a writer and publicist working in New York. It is an excerpt from his book, ”Identity Wars: Online Anonymity, Privacy and Control,” which is slated for a September release from Overlook Press.
On March 27, 2012 I had the opportunity to attend a private screening of a mini-documentary called “Free the Network,” produced by Vice’s tech site, Motherboard.tv. The documentary opens at Occupy Wall Street, first depicted as a wacky, disparate band of activists which developed a curious techno-centric bent with the arrival of Anonymous, along with a more or less disorganized faction of hackers who wished to bring about social revolution through technology. The film centers on one of them, a 21-year old college dropout named Isaac Wilder, the executive director of the Free Network Foundation.
Mr. Wilder builds communications systems based around Freedom Towers, DIY kits that fit in a suitcase containing everything one would need to set up an ad hoc peer to peer network. The instructions are simple: “Plug it in. Press the big green button.” It creates a local network that stays up no matter what happens to the wider global Internet. All of this is mostly funded through private donations from family, friends, and fellow revolutionaries. Mr. Wilder estimates that the equipment required to assemble a Freedom Tower would have cost over $10,000 as recent as five years ago. Today: $2,000. And it’s completely grid-independent. That means solar powered batteries, a DC power system, a server, a router and a suite of powerful software, all contained in a suitcase.
The idea is to build a mesh network, where all computers are nodes that act as transmitters to other computers, in order to decentralize the Internet and remove it from the control of governments and corporations. Mr. Wilder argues that if we are ever going to achieve global revolution, we must wrest control of the pipes from multinational telecom companies who would censor or monitor the communication of social revolutionaries.
The documentary depicts the aftermath of a police raid at Zucotti Park during Occupy Wall Street, specifically rows of laptops that had been smashed in by cops, presumably. Several contributors to the documentary speculate that the destruction indicates the establishment is trying to keep the message down. Maybe the cops are just sick of putting up with a bunch of grungy hippies and this was a method of discouragement rather than an outright conspiracy to destroy information. Either way, it’s a dark, dark image, one that makes me immediately sympathize with the need to create information networks that can’t be smashed in, let alone censored.
I caught up with Mr. Wilder a few days after the screening and asked him where his passion for free networks comes from.
I went to Cuba. In the summer after my freshman year of college with three of my best friends. I really didn’t like it at all. The police state. That people didn’t have access to information. It just really got to me. I wrote a science fiction novel about building a free network. I love writing, but realized this would actually be better as science fact than science fiction.
He went back to school and connected with an adviser who pointed him in the direction of the FreedomBox Project, which lit a fire in him.
I mean, I’d already deleted my Facebook. I was already a Computer Science/Philosophy double major. But I spent one more year in school and then I left to start the foundation.
The FreedomBox is a small device that fits in the palm of your hands. It is a small, Linux-powered computer that plugs directly into a wall with built-in privacy-protected email and chat, and a publishing platform for activists living under tyranny. It’s a work in progress, and the team is currently soliciting software packages that will make an ideal FreedomBox. The project is ambitious, aiming to bring about the collapse of nothing less than China’s “Great Firewall. “
Mr. Wilder says that he’d like to see a burgeoning microwave network in Kansas city, his base of operations, and hopefully, some action in New York and California by the end of 2012. He’s quick to reiterate that the technology he wants to see in place is already here.
[This technology] exists already, all over the world. Athens, Berlin, Spain, Kabul, Nairobi. There are huge microwave networks that do what we’re talking about doing. It’s not just for the developing world. It’s not just cheaper. That it’s cheaper means we can do it together. These are hacker collectives providing internet access to people who can’t get it any other way because the infrastructure isn’t there.
He rattles off a laundry list of hacker projects, citing “unbelievable pioneering work” happening across the globe at the hands of hacker collectives.
Mr. Wilder hopes that within five years, a dozen metropolitan areas in the U.S. will have cooperative networks and the beginnings of distributed Wide Area Networks. He says that satellites are a possibility, but he thinks that they’re not the most attractive option due to visibility and tracking problems, as well as high latency. He’s more interested in near-space platforms at 100,000 feet. These consist of dirigibles, fancy balloons that would float somewhere between Kansas City and Chicago, for instance, connecting the two citywide networks. He says the Air Force and oil companies have been using these for years.
This can be a commons. We did it at a small scale at Liberty Park. Next we’ll do it for a thousand people. Then for a few hundred thousand people. And ultimately humanity. We’ll have a network that we share and operate together for our mutual benefit. I think it’ll happen peacefully because the desire for it will be so overwhelming that there will be no way to stop it. This seems like the best way to counter late capitalist hegemony.
The Free Network Foundation isn’t interested in pushing for increased government regulation of the Internet. They don’t seem to trust the White House any more than they trust AT&T. And so, they rage against the machine by building a new one.