Occupy the Internet: Protests Give Rise to DIY Data Networks

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Matt Yoka / VICE

Isaac Wilder and his Freedom Tower.

“There is a material reality to the internet,” explains Isaac Wilder, 21, on Motherboard TV’s new 30-minute documentary Free the Network. “Most people look at the internet as magic; you click a button and something happens and you get the information.

“They don’t care to acknowledge the actual physical infrastructure that’s moving that data. It’s fiber optic cables in the ground which are owned by corporations.”

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That, in short, is what Wilder’s Free Network Foundation is trying to get around. In the fall, he was the man behind providing Occupy Wall Street protesters with Internet access. His Freedom Towers — consisting of a modem, router and radio — let protesters in Los Angeles, Austin and New York communicate with each other without fear of government surveillance.

Regardless of what you think of Occupy Wall Street‘s politics, the reality is that the question of who controls the Internet is only going to become more pressing as it takes an increasingly central role in our lives.

Already the fight has become messy. The SOPA blackout, the rise of Anonymous, the financial blockade of WikiLeaks — all of these, at their heart, have been about who has the right to regulate what happens on the web.

Recently, President Barack Obama’s message to Iran to take down its “electronic curtain” underscored the seriousness of the issue:

“Increasingly, the Iranian people are denied the basic freedom to access the information that they want. Instead, the Iranian government jams satellite signals to shut down television and radio broadcasts. It censors the Internet to control what the Iranian people can see and say.”

In the Arab Spring, as in the Occupy Wall Street protests, social media was an important tool in assembling and organizing large crowds. Threaten access to the Internet and you threaten the movement. Or, as Wilder puts it, “If there is any prospect of a successful global revolution, it’s contingent on our ability to build an information infrastructure outside of those [corporate] entities.”

Liam Young / Tomorrow's Thoughts Today

Ideology aside, the practicality of turning something originally developed by the Department of Defense into something completely and open and free will be no easy task. I talked to a much more clean-shaven Wilder at the Free the Network premiere in New York last night and he seemed optimistic about the progress he and various other developers are making into what he calls “free networks.”

I decided to contact another person I heard about, Liam Young, who works with a think tank called Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today. Inspired by the upheaval in the Middle East, Young and his team went about constructing drones that transmit Wi-Fi signals.

“Our project is able to swarm into formation, broadcast its pirate network, and then disperse, escaping detection, only to reform elsewhere,” he wrote to me from London, where he is based. “At a larger scale you can imagine these systems crossing back and forth across nation borders, occupying international airspace so that it is more difficult for particular jurisdictions to legislate against them. The more slippery and fluid the infrastructure is, the more difficult it is to close it down.”

Right now, the fleet of drones can transmit signals out about 200 to 300 meters, although by adding more drones Young hopes to dramatically expand that range. They recharge themselves autonomously, flying to a battery station when they run out of power.

Ultimately, Wilder’s Freedom Towers and Young’s drones are providing alternatives to the corporate-owned, government-regulated fiber optic cables running underneath us. Do we need them? That depends on your politics. It doesn’t change the fact that they’re coming.

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