Internet Freedom Fighters Build a Shadow Web

Governments and corporations have more control over the Internet than ever. Now digital activists want to build an alternative network that can never be blocked, filtered or shut down

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Julian Dibbell
Scientific American

In Brief:

  • The Internet was designed to be a decentralized system: every node should connect to many others. This design helped to make the system resistant to censorship or outside attack.
  • Yet in practice, most individual users exist at the edges of the network, connected to others only through their Internet service provider (ISP). Block this link, and Internet access disappears.
  • An alternative option is beginning to emerge in the form of wireless mesh networks, simple systems that connect end users to one another and automatically route around blocks and censors.
  • Yet any mesh network needs to hit a critical mass of users before it functions well; developers must convince potential users to trade off ease of use for added freedom and privacy.

Just after midnight on January 28, 2011, the government of Egypt, rocked by three straight days of massive antiregime protests organized in part through Facebook and other online social networks, did something unprecedented in the history of 21st-century telecommunications: it turned off the Internet. Exactly how it did this remains unclear, but the evidence suggests that five well-placed phone calls—one to each of the country’s biggest Internet service providers (ISPs)—may have been all it took. At 12:12 a.m. Cairo time, network routing records show, the leading ISP, Telecom Egypt, began shutting down its customers’ connections to the rest of the Internet, and in the course of the next 13 minutes, four other providers followed suit. By 12:40 a.m. the operation was complete. An estimated 93 percent of the Egyptian Internet was now unreachable. When the sun rose the next morning, the protesters made their way to Tahrir Square in almost total digital darkness.

Both strategically and tactically, the Internet blackout accomplished little—the crowds that day were the biggest yet, and in the end, the demonstrators prevailed. But as an object lesson in the Internet’s vulnerability to top-down control, the shutdown was alarmingly instructive and perhaps long overdue.

  • Much has been made of the Internet’s ability to resist such control. The network’s technological origins, we are sometimes told, lie in the cold war–era quest for a communications infrastructure so robust that even a nuclear attack could not shut it down. Although that is only partly true, it conveys something of the strength inherent in the Internet’s elegantly decentralized design. With its multiple, redundant pathways between any two network nodes and its ability to accommodate new nodes on the fly, the TCP/IP protocol that defines the Internet should ensure that it can keep on carrying data no matter how many nodes are blocked and whether it’s an atom bomb or a repressive regime that does it. As digital-rights activist John Gilmore once famously said, “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

    That is what it was designed to do anyway. And yet if five phone calls can cut off the Internet access of 80 million Egyptians, things have not worked quite that way in practice. The Egyptian cutoff was only the starkest of a growing list of examples that demonstrate how susceptible the Internet can be to top-down control. During the Tunisian revolution the month before, authorities had taken a more targeted approach, blocking only some sites from the national Internet. In the Iranian postelection protests of 2009, Iran’s government slowed nationwide Internet traffic rather than stopping it altogether. And for years China’s “great firewall” has given the government the ability to block whatever sites it chooses. In Western democracies, consolidation of Internet service providers has put a shrinking number of corporate entities in control of growing shares of Internet traffic, giving companies such as Comcast and AT&T both the incentive and the power to speed traffic served by their own media partners at the expense of competitors.

    What happened, and can it be fixed? Can an Internet as dynamically resilient as the one Gilmore idealized—an Internet that structurally resists government and corporate throttles and kill switches—be recovered? A small but dedicated community of digital activists are working on it. Here is what it might look like.

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