The Open Network Project: free Internet in every sky
If you go through some statistics you’ll see there are still societies and parts of the world, even parts in your own ‘neighbourhood’ where majority of people have no access to Internet or they can’t afford it. You can read reports and realize that there are cases where only 20-30% of the population has access to Internet. Upon seeing such documents and statistical analysis and reading or hearing their content most of us feel sort of … well, out of touch, disconnected – “What can I do about it, about all that ‘big’ data?”. We feel powerless. But it ain’t necessarily so.
Digital divide and information divide is something we can minimize and eventually erase, it is something we have power to change. This is the place where I think of Björk’s song “It’s in our hands”. Few people in my hometown took things into their hands and they’ve created The Open Network Project (Projekt otvorena mreža, cro.). You’ve probably heard of EFF’s project Open Wireless Movement whose vision is to “open up networks in every urban environment and make Internet available at everyone’s fingertips”. The Open Network Project (TONP) is based on same principles and more – setting up and opening up networks in every environment – urban, rural, rich, poor, overpopulated, underpopulated, …, everywhere where there is need for it.
The Open Network is a project of all citizens and for all citizens so its success depends on all of us. It is an international project whose purpose is to cultivate the culture of sharing and help overcome digital and information divide, specially in rural and low income areas. The purpose isn’t just to set up a mesh network but to use it as a platform for many different projects. Enabling Internet access points is just an intro to the whole story which goes something like this …
”There once was a good hearted and broad minded girl called Susie. For many years she wondered “What can I do to make this world a better place?”. Somehow she got to attend the Open Network workshop in her local community center and suddenly her mission was unraveled before her eyes – extend the benefits of Internet to all her fellow citizens. She took one router with her, came home, put it on her window and configured it with the help of a good tutorial. After configuring her router and opening up the network to her community, Susie started worrying. “Will someone break into my computer? What if someone uses it for illegal actions? Won’t freeloaders slow down my connection?” She had to seek some answers so she called the local NGO that organized the workshop and a volunteer answered. After their talk together Susie felt at peace again because now she knew – she alone configures security and privacy settings, she alone decides on sharing capacity and she can always run a guest network. But that wasn’t the end. Susie went back to the community center and started attending other workshops. She became good friends with volunteers and NGO members and she gain knowledge in Linux and how to use her open network as a platform for other projects, how to set up different sensors, how to do some basic programming, even how to solder. Thus her open network became quite big, interesting and useful project and Susie and her neighbours, and friends, and fellow travelers, and random passersby lived happily and connectedly every after. And no, she didn’t marry the guy from the local NGO and went to live with him in the suburbs. But there’s a good chance she’ll meet her prince somewhere on the other side of Internet.”
Still, we don’t want to sell people a fairytale. Yes, there are some issues around liability for what others do, like file sharing, copyright infringement and dealing with illegal content (e.g. child pornography). And this is sort of a gray area. Since open network providers are just a service providers, like ISPs, the same rules should apply to them, i.e. the law should offer protection against liability for illegal actions done by users. This is where the significance of creating a new open network policy comes in place. Until we’ll have one, the main things is to educate our community and have them use our open network freely and fairly.
Another thing worth mentioning. The Open Network Project is not just network of routers. It is a network of people. Social ties emerge not only in the digital environment when people share their bandwidth but also in AFK environment. People meet in hacklabs, makerspaces, parks or pubs; they exchange ideas, converse and socialize, solder things and write programs. They build our way to good society. (I used the term “good society” in correspondence to J. K. Galbraith’s term in his book “The good society: the human agenda” since TONP is trying to make the society more humane by providing all people with same opportunities and means.) Meaningful solution to good society and society of equality is to encompass far more than providing people with computers and Internet and all other tools. Solution lies in a complex array of different factors – physical, technological, human and social. Society of equality must be supported by institutional structures, education, community itself, the quality of content, etc. Only then is access to new technologies complete and just. TONP is doing just that – community provides technical structure and support, people educate each other, share experiences and skills, people bond and collaborate and what comes out of it all is quality network and all it upgrades. Mark Warschauer, professor of Education and Informatics at the University of California, speaks of technology for social inclusion. TONP fits perfect in his syntagma. The project is one great and simple piece of technology that enables technological and, therefore, social inclusion for all.
Last but not least, project is not just a story about network and community that built it. It serves as a way to open society free of technological constraints. And when you free people from technological constraints, you free them entirely – you free their creativity, innovation, development, you give them their basic rights as the citizens of the world. It also serves as a way to political freedom. As Yochai Benkler would say “the networked public sphere sure does contribute to political freedom and true digital democracy”. Providing Internet access to all and empowering people to use the technology in their own way, the project contributes to global justice making every member of the project a member of global justice league. So, if you ever wanted to be a superhero, here’s your chance.
For those who think it’s just another utopia, I guess everything is, until there’s a shift of consciousness. What we need, besides the shift of consciousness, is a shift of open and free paradigm which fosters collaboration, creativity, innovation, free and open source tools and solutions. When we embrace the culture of sharing there and then do we grow both as individuals and as society.
The Open Network Project is a great step towards our free and open future. And how free and open is the future, you may ask? Just as much as our hearts, minds and networks.
If you still doubt you can do it, don’t. You can do so many things.
You can spread the word.
You can donate equipment.
You can write code and documentation or articles like this one (there, now you know I can’t write code)
If there’s a problem to solve, you can contemplate about it and do research.
Or you can fix it.
You don’t have to be a supercat.
Just be yourself and trust your knowledge and skills.
… if they can do it, so can you!