How do you build a network that survives when the rest of the web goes down? It’s a strange question, but one with a surprisingly concrete answer. You can find the networks in Athens, Berlin, and Red Hook, Brooklyn — small-scale traffic webs that let computers connect peer-to-peer without going through the larger web. It’s called a mesh network, a decentralized setup that uses smart routers and messy traffic to create a more local kind of network. And as the idea has taken shape, it’s found supporters ranging from cypherpunks to the US State Department.
Seeking out new tools that are out of the government's grasp
It’s also an idea with real consequences, as we’ve seen over and over. After the Arab Spring, country after country has struggled to keep the web alive through times of political turmoil, most recently in Turkey and Ukraine. As soon as a popular movement grows strong enough to threaten the regime, governments will strike at the tools they're using to organize, whether it's Twitter, Facebook, or the web at large. At the same time, organizers will seek out new tools that are out of the government's grasp, struggling to stay one step ahead of the regime.
The result is a strange kind of arms race, pitting central governments against protesters, tech companies, and other allies across the world. The fight has played out differently in each country, ranging from countrywide throttling in Iran to a more subtle nationalization of the web in Vietnam and Indonesia. But in each case, protest groups have struggled to stay connected to the larger web, and sometimes won important victories just by keeping the connection live.
Sophisticated censors can still be dodged through Tor
If the government is targeting a single service like Twitter, there are simple ways around the block. When Turkey blocked Twitter in March, citizens could get around it through a mirror set up by Google DNS. By routing traffic through a different IP, Google effectively dodged the Turkish censor. More sophisticated censors can be dodged by using a VPN or a traffic-routing service like Tor. As long as there’s still a connection, a motivated user can still get data out to the wider world.
If you need to spread a message, you can do it
But that only works if the web at large is still connected. In drastic cases like Iran and Egypt, central telecoms can block outside connections at the physical level, either cutting off all data traffic in and out of the country or slowing it to a trickle. In that case, you need a new kind of network entirely. That’s where mesh networking comes in. It’s still a young technology and it’s never been deployed in an actual conflict, but projects like Commotion are already promoting the necessary tech. You won’t be able to use central services like Facebook or Google, but if you need to spread a message or set up a chat room, you can do it — even if the larger web is shut down.
It’s a win for dissidents, at least in theory, but they aren’t the only ones cheering on the new tech. The US State Department has poured millions into building mesh networks in Tunisia and Cuba, on the hopes that if an uprising does happen, the networks will make it harder to stamp out. It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s easy to imagine tools like Commotion being used alongside Tor and Google DNS. If it happens, it would be our first glimpse of a smaller and more localized web — and one that’s much, much harder to turn off.