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Why I Love the Idea of Community File Sharing and Mesh Networks


Community File Transfer

As it ages, the internet has begun to develop some significant health problems. The problems I'm referring to are well known--more government control and censorship through regulation, less freedom of speech, more centralization into the hands of giant companies, more restrictions on individual initiative, less privacy, more cost to individuals. Unlike our bodies, which will eventually get old and die, the internet can be healed. But, whether it will be healed depends entirely on us.

In the very early days of the internet, back before it was called that, governments and large corporations really didn't notice the ways individuals were starting to use computers and computer networks. Lacking any type of technical education whatsoever, nor the slightest interest for that matter, CEO's and government leaders had no understanding at all of the nearly limitless uses that would one day be realized. They saw computers and computer networks merely as esoteric tools that their minions needed to solve whatever problems they were ordered to solve. Organizations were perfectly happy to leave their tools in the hands of the minions while the "important people" played their power games. It was a socioeconomic master/slave relationship, and the masters had no idea that the slaves possessed the insight nor the ability to use the tools they had been given to become their own masters.

Then, things changed. People like Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Bill Gates came along. Suddenly, nerds were becoming millionaires, competing with giant corporations like IBM, and hiring lobbyists. A few years later, IBM had mostly been shoved out of the computer market and nearly went out of business. That was decades before Apple became a corporation worth nearly a trillion dollars. But it was enough for the powerful people to begin to sit up and take notice. At first it was all about economics. Small companies were pushing large companies out of markets and themselves becoming large companies. Technology was adding to the tax base of cities and states.

Then, perhaps sometime shortly before the "Arab Spring" in 2010, the powerful people in governments started noticing that the internet had given not only the minions but also other ordinary people more power to communicate and to organize in ways governments did't necessarily like. Around the same time, many of the large corporations that had grown large through the internet began to actively push their competitors out of business (Microsoft had been doing this for years), often either buy buying them and shutting them down, or by partnering with them and stealing their ideas--much as Japanese companies had done to US companies in the 1980's. And recognizing the internet as both the source of their power and of their possible future destruction, these companies began looking for better ways of controlling it. One of the ways they did this was by offering services for "free"--services like email, social networking, internet dating, music, movies and videos, software downloads, and all sorts of information on their websites. What small competitor can compete with "free"? Over a decade earlier, Bill Gates destroyed competition in the word processing market by incorporating Microsoft Word into Windows for free. But "free" internet services were not free; they were paid for by collecting valuable information from the users, which reduced the free-dom of the users to retain their privacy. Users had to sign away their rights to privacy by agreeing to long end-user license agreements that they neither read nor understood. Governments shortly recognized the opportunities these factors presented. The US government began using secret courts to issue secret orders to large corporations to tap into the information flowing into corporate servers, especially cell phone and email traffic. It tapped into and recorded this information, justifying its actions by claiming that they were necessary to fight terrorism. The chinese government coerced Google into moving all the information it had collected from chinese citizens onto servers on chinese soil, where they have the authority to sift through it just as the US government had been doing. The result of these information grabs is that the average internet user has very little privacy on the internet.

The reason I love the idea of community file sharing and mesh networking is that, in theory, these can be methods of taking back our privacy. Although a few large-scale community networks exist in places large companies aren't interested in providing internet services, I have no illusions that they will soon grow large enough for the average person in first and second world countries to use to replace the corporatized internet that we have today. The reason is that I understand the average person doesn't really care much about his freedom. Combine that with governments' ability to regulate technology and the inability of citizens to out-wit their politicians, and you have a continuation of our current type of internet for the foreseeable future. Still, the idea of everyone connecting directly to each other's computers without any middlemen in a way that is completely secure and private sounds wonderful. And it could work if enough of us wanted it badly enough to keep our politicians from taking it away. I'm virtually certain that won't happen in my lifetime. But I like the idea so much that I want to talk about it anyway.

Let me begin by talking about my experience with my PirateBox. This is a cheap (what else would you expect on this website) Raspberry Pi computer that runs a special version of Arch Linux that is designed to make it a wifi server for sharing files, streaming audio and video, hosting a forum, and chatting. I have mine connected to a high-gain antenna in a window facing out across the courtyard of my apartment complex. I think there are about a hundred people within range. On my Piratebox, I've put documentaries, open-source ebooks, podcasts, and audio books. In total, I have about 16GB of this stuff. My PirateBox has been in operation for nearly a year now. So far, I've seen long periods of nearly complete inactivity interspersed with a few weeks at a time of nearly daily connections. I know that in the neighborhood of ten to twelve computers are connecting. I have no idea who owns them, and I don't care. The point is that it pleases me to be sharing interesting information and entertainment with my anonymous neighbors. I just enjoy it. I was hoping that we could also use it to talk about the things that are of interest in our apartment complex, like the management. But this hasn't happened. No one has used the forum, yet, or even uploaded a single file. I am disappointed by this, but not surprised. Despite the limited success, I see the potential for something bigger which would completely change the dynamics of the way people interact on the PirateBox. A larger user base, perhaps one thousand people, is needed for more content to be introduced and for people to begin spontaneously talking to each other. If a longer range device were available, I envision a network that could grow to span my entire apartment complex. Then my neighborhood. Then, using a mesh network of similar devices linked together, my city.

Currently, the internet is a "centralized" network set up so that users are routed through the servers of their internet service providers (ISP's), and from there to servers hosting individual websites. Users cannot communicate directly with servers hosting websites without involving ISP middlemen. A mesh network is a computer network where users communicate directly with each other, including servers hosting websites.

The potential of community file sharing and communication using mesh networks of tens of thousands of computers or more is enormous. It would mean that we could communicate with each other and share files completely anonymously without governments being able to tap into or control our interactions. It also means that we would pay the true cost of these interactions with no profit for ISP's. We would be free to visit any website, upload or download any file, email anyone, chat with anyone that we wanted without any interference, tracking, or snooping by any organization. This would occur, ideally, across the whole world, including in countries with repressive governments.

Unfortunately, this is very unlikely to happen any time soon. One reason is that there are many mesh networking standards. We would first have to agree on a single standard. Currently, no financial motivation exists in industry for agreeing to a standard, because companies are making a lot of money off of the current ISP-mediated, centralized internet. A mesh network would take away their profits. Therefore, in order for a standard to be developed, someone would have to appear with a non-financial motivation. It would take someone like Elon Musk with tens of millions of dollars to develop a standard, promote it, and start selling a longer range router. A router with a range of a mile or more would be required to bridge the gaps in the new, sparsely-populated mesh network. The longer range router would have to operate at a frequency lower than the current wifi frequency of 2.4 GHz. Perhaps 900 MHz could be used. As the density of the mesh network grew, the range could be reduced to maybe 500 feet. This is similar to what has already occurred with our current wifi routers. As more people bought wifi routers, and the density of routers increased, the level of interference also increased. The solution to the interference problem was for manufacturers to lower the power of the routers' wifi signal. This is why you can no longer buy a consumer-grade wifi router with a power of more than about 50 mW (regardless of the claims in sales advertisements). After a standard and a router have been developed, the average consumer will have to see a benefit from disconnecting from the current internet and switching to the new mesh network internet. Cost will be one incentive, but the primary incentive would probably be something else. Perhaps by that point the current internet will have become even more unhealthy than it is today? Anyway, it is unlikely that the necessary precursors of a cure, a globe-spanning mesh network internet, are likely to coalesce any time soon.

Related Articles:

17 Months with My PirateBox

How to Avoid being Tracked and Spied-On while Online

The High Cost of Technological Illiteracy in Our Society

How to have Your Own Website for $2 a Year

ZeroNet and the Future of the Internet


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