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
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.
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.