Mesh networks: Routing around online censorship and control

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Libertarian and Electronic Frontier Foundation creator John Gilmore, is the author of one of my favourite statements about the web: "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."

That quote points out two aspects of the web that are important. First, that it is decentralized and second, that it has the technical capacity to subvert intrusions it considers counterproductive. But Gilmore said that back in 1993, long before a web increasingly constrained by anti-net neutrality plays, cyberspying and corporate ownership of pipes and content. So, it's refreshing to see another web rise up as an even more decentralized alternative -- the mesh network.

The web itself, as Gilmore indicates, is a type of mesh network. Each node in the web passes on data packets. It then uses information in that packet to nudge it along to its final destination. There it is reassembled with the other data packets that make up an email, audio or video file or picture. Should one packet hit a roadblock, it can be rerouted around the damaged node and get delivered anyway. A robust mesh has more than one way to get from point A to point B.

Web traffic, of course, depends on the vast Internet for messages to get through. A computer in the bush of Northern Ontario, with no Internet, gets no email.

But, smartphones use more than just the web to communicate. They can use their short-range Bluetooth radios and even create their own ad hoc Wi-Fi networks with or without a connection to the web or cellular data service.

That means that, over short distances, two smartphones (and other mobile devices) could exchange messages and data even when there is no Internet-based Wi-Fi.

That's exactly what happens when you use the AirDrop feature to transfer images from one iPhone to another one nearby. Or, when your Bluetooth heart-rate monitor sends data to the running app on your Android phone.

But, imagine Smartphone A and B. They can talk to one another if they are close enough. What if Smartphone B also talks to Smartphone C. Smartphone C isn't close enough to talk to Smartphone A directly. But, what if Smartphone B could pass a message from Smartphone C to Smartphone A? Now we have the beginnings of a mesh. Let's add Smartphones D, E, F, G and so on. Each can communicate directly with the other phones near them and can passively push along messages for other phones in the growing web. With enough phones, close enough to even one neighbour, you could interconnect and share messages with a neighbourhood or even city of smartphones, without the Internet at all. That's a mesh network.

That's exactly how the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) tablets used in developing countries communicate. A mesh network is perfect in villages that have little, if any Internet connectivity (meshed tablets can also share a single Internet point over a wide area as well).

The OLPC project is making use of technology from Open Garden. The San Francisco-based company creates software that makes it easy for laptops, cellphones and tablets to share Internet connectivity, no matter which device has the connection. It can even pool data access from multiple sources -- say from your home Wi-Fi and cellular data.

And, just last week, Open Garden released FireChat, an iOS app that makes use of the Multipeer Connectivity Framework that Apple introduced in iOS 7. With FireChat, you can send messages and pictures to other FireChat users nearby and to others connected via daisy-chaining in the mesh network. That means, for example, that at a rally or demonstration, an activist group could create an ad hoc mesh network just to chat with each other, without an Internet connection. Or, you could chat with others at a music festival even if there was no Wi-Fi or cellular signal. Right now, there is no way to create a private group on FireChat, but I'm sure that's coming.

Google is also keenly interested in mesh networks as a tool for connecting the "internet of things" like a smartphone and your Nest smart thermostat, for example. And, they see it as the communications fabric for wearable devices.

So, you might imagine four mesh layers: the World Wide Web as the largest, a nearby mesh of communicating smartphones, then a mesh of household devices, then a personal mesh for devices you wear.

I think we're going to be hearing a lot more about mesh networks, which is good, because when privacy, censorship and control are in the wind, we all need new ways to route around them.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Photo: ryanne lai/flickr

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