NOT a PROTEST, a DEMONSTRATION
A Telecom-Independent Internet, Tested at Occupy Wall Street, for Just $2,000
by Cole Stryker, excerpt from ”Identity Wars: Online Anonymity, Privacy and Control”
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.
The “Freedom Tower” at Occupy Wall Street in New York
VIRTUAL PRIVATE NETWORKS
Occupy Wall Street Could Get Occupation-to-Occupation VPN
by Adrianne Jeffries 11/02/11
Um, wow. There is an initiative by the Free Network Foundation to build a private network for Occupy Wall Street and its affiliated movements in other cities. “We are the Free Network Foundation, builders and advocates of distributed and decentralized communication systems. We believe that the Internet should be used to connect people, not to spy on them, oppress them, or turn a profit,” says co-founder and executive director Isaac Wilder.
The organization has two prototype “FreedomTowers” providing internet access at Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Austin. But the organization wants to build more, with the goal of establishing an occupation-to-occupation Virtual Private Network. The only stumbling block? About $64,000. Mr. Wilder explains:
Eventually, my travels led me to Occupy Wall Street. We knew that it was time to put up or shut up–all of a sudden, there was a real need for the technologies we had been cooking up. In two weeks, we designed, built, and tested the first two FreedomTowers. Now there are towers in use at Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Austin, and Occupy LA with the number set to double in the next few weeks. These towers don’t just provide Internet access to the occupiers. They are designed to run services locally, so that information destined for the other side of the park doesn’t have to travel several thousand miles. They serve as uplinks to a Virtual Private Network, so that communications between occupations can’t be intercepted.
The FreedomNode is the foundation of the Free Network technology stack – a device that will allow neighbors to communicate with one another directly, without need for a paid service provider. We think of it as the ultimate sharing machine, allowing you to privately store, selectively distribute and globally publish a wide range of materials, using a variety of connectivity options.
Lets start with the user experience, and from there we can seek to understand the technical aspects. For the time being, we’ll talk only about the experience of the node as a standalone device, and exclude the (likely) possibility that some users will boot the software on existing machines. The node presents a uniform interface across client devices using HTTP(S) – a collection of stylesheets allow the interface to adapt successfully to a wide array of different screen resolutions and input methods.
In simple terms, you interact with your node by opening a browser – any browser – and navigating to your node’s address. That address can be a global name such as a user-owned DNS entry, or a third-party subdomain such as username.fnf.tel, or, from the same local network, a local address, such as ‘https://mynode’. Alternatively, the node can be accessed from its unique IPv6 address. Navigating to the address of a node prompts the user to authenticate. This is done using the F-Pass system. F-Pass is the key to trust and addressing on the Free Network – tying together x.509, PGP, IPv6, and secure, one time passwords.
Once authenticated, the user is presented with a main menu that provides access to all of the essential functions of the node. Icons exist for Blogging, Microblogging, Planning (like plans.txt on Unix or GrinnellPlans), Mail, and an A/V Center (photos, music, video, and files). An additional icon leads to a list of contacts, with a final icon leading to system settings. Users can be organized into aspects, with a ‘Neighbor’ aspect generated automatically for those with whom you can communicate without need of an Internet Service Provider. From the contacts page, a user can access the blog, microblog, plan, or shared media of another user. Users have precise control over who can access each piece of media on their node. Sharing is encrypted by default, anonymized when desired, and opportunistically peer-to-peer – that means that we all cooperate to move each others’ messages, when it is possible, rather than paying a professional bit-mover
Now that we’ve established what the node is designed to accomplish, let’s talk about its actual design. At the core of the FreedomNode is a small-form computer, designed to run continuously for years on end. The computer’s onboard capabilities can be expanded with USB mass storage, and miniPCI radio modules. On bare metal, the node will run genode, a novel GPL operating system architecture that allows for true fault isolation and tolerance. On top of that, a lightweight debian install will be used to ensure long-term package support and stability. The user-facing services run on top of Debian, powered by a collection of existing open-source daemons and tools. These services benefit from the tight integration of a unified interface and a unified authentication and identity management system.
Add to that the ability to communicate without using the telco’s wires, and you’ve got a truly disruptive piece of tech. The Byzantium Project has built a solid foundation for mesh communications – their routing scheme (based on the babel protocol) will be integrated with nodal services so that local traffic never has to leave the neighborhood network. There is much to do, but we aim to have the FreedomNode ready to release in 18 months or less – join us now, and help us build the greatest tool in the liberation technology toolkit.
The FNF is anticipating our first milestone (FreeNetwork1.0) to be completed over the next 18 months. This depends on staffing levels, schedule slippage etc.
The first milestone (FreeNetwork 1.0) is defined as follows:
Delivery of a
- secure (transport layer and data storage (FreedomNode)
- highly available
- varying degrees of identification (fully anonymous to fully authenticated)
- virtual (overlay/VPN links between all components of the network)
All components of the network will be
- locally funded
- locally constructed
- locally operated
- locally owned
The network will consist of three highly horizontal layers
1) backbone network comprised of FreedomLinks which facilitate connections and efficient traffic flow between regional networks of FreedomTowers
2) Sustainable (off grid) FreedomTowers linking into regional area networks which are comprised of neighborhood area networks of
3) Sustainable (off grid) FreedomNodes which will serve individual homes and businesses.
The network will mesh (in both a logical and material peer to peer fashion) horizontally at every level (node to node, tower to tower, link to link). It will also mesh/route vertically between the layers of the network
PEER to PEER
(Next Net mailing list, March 2011)
“My name is Isaac Wilder, and I’m a sophomore at Grinnell College in Iowa. At the beginning of this school year, I helped to bring together a group of hackers that calls itself FreeNet (sorry about the name duplication). Our mission is build exactly such a system as is being discussed here: an F/LOSS p2p physical network layer that scales to the municipal level. We believe that a federation of such municipal networks could serve as a building block for a self-governing network on a global scale. We call our system the Mesh Interface for Network Devices, or MIND. We have a wiki at www.freenetworkmovement.org where we have been documenting our progress. Things have not progressed as quickly as we would have liked, but we are very near an initial rollout to the general Grinnell public. We are using a variety of hardware platforms (Ubiquiti , Linksys , Asus, etc…) and replacing their propriety firmware with dd-wrt, a F/LOSS linux distribution for embedded systems. dd-wrt supports optimized link-state routing, which we are planning to use until something better comes along. Our hardware is completely crowd-sourced, and we’ve got a sizeable group of people that are willing to install hardware in/on their homes when the time comes. I can tell you all from experience that the difficult part here is on the technical side – people, most people, are downright enthralled by the idea of a community-owned network co-op. Those that aren’t compelled by philosophical reasons are compelled by economic ones. What we need to focus on is designing for a user experience that is streamlined and no-fuss. What’s more, four of us from FreeNet attended the Students for Free Culture conference at NYU in February. (That’s where I met Devin Balkind, which is how I got to be a member of this group.) The response to our gameplan at SFCNYC was amazing. Students from all over the world are looking to help with this project. The MIND is an idea that just makes sense to people. To make the prospects of the project even more exciting, we’ve been talking to the folks at www.ahumanright.org about potential collaboration. We are thinking that bandwidth from their buythissatellite.org campaign could be used for backhaul between geographically disparate pockets of the MIND.”