If there’s something good to come out of the revelation that the NSA can watch basically everything we do online, it’s getting more people riled up about the increasingly not private, free, or neutral state of the internet these days. Some hacktivists are so fed up in fact, they decided to build a new internet, that's user-owned—something of a cyber-commune.
You may have heard of the meshnet scheme last year during the SOPA/PIPA fight, or during the Occupy Wall Street movement. Developers are using mesh networking to create a decentralized network, in which computers are connected directly to each other instead of through centralized portals like ISPs and telecom companies. By passing information from computer to computer through the network, there’s a lower chance that a third party can gain power and control over the internet—or spy on information as it travels.
It works in two parts. One is a local networks of physical “nodes”—beams installed in the ground, each with a radio transceiver and a computer, that can send messages to other nodes nearby. It's like a local, pirate wi-fi network. There are several of these mesh “islands” around the country already—the biggest in Seattle, Maryland, and New York.
Last year Motherboard spent time with Isaac Wilder, the co-founder of the Free Network Foundation, which was a proponent of mesh networking born of the Occupy movement.
Part two is a software called Cjdns, which is the basis for a virtual mesh network, called Hyperboria. It runs through the existing internet, but the routing software makes it possible for the computers to talk directly, peer to peer. The endpoints verify each other cryptographically, so only the intended receiver can access the information traveling through the network.
The whole concept is fairly simple, but pulling it off will be harder. The current middleman system is much faster and easier for consumers, and as of now, you need to have pretty advanced tech savvy to connect to Hyperboria. Meshnetters are hoping to solve for that with “meshbox” routers. The routers come with Cjdns installed, so all you have to do is plug the device into your computer and boom, you're on the meshnet.
The Seattle Meshnet project recently wrapped up a crowdfunding campaign to distribute the meshboxes (the going rate is $125), and the first batch is set to be shipped out this month. Is there any hope of mass adoption, or is the idea doomed to fester in the dark corners of subreddits and wikis?
One snag is that you can't use current popular websites like Gmail or Facebook without leaving the meshnet. It would truly be building the web from scratch , with a whole new set of sites and services. In that sense, Hyperboria is like the early web of the 80s—a wild west of possibilities. So far it supports just a handful of services, like an email and blogging platforms, and Uppit, its version of Reddit.
What the project needs now is more people on board—joining the network, installing nodes, linking up with the local meshnet community. Even with the newfound post-PRISM inspiration, there's a long road to travel to go from fun hacker project and internet salvation.