When Occupy Wall Street established camp in Zuccotti Park, the need for active media communications was crucial. Isaac Wilder and Charles Wyble of the Free Network Foundation (FNF) stepped up to supply internet capabilities via their Freedom Tower-powered mesh networks. Mesh networks deliver internet connectivity without relying on the infrastructure traditionally used to wire the web into your home: instead, peer-to-peer networks are established between devices. 23-year-old Wilder speaks passionately about free networks, a welcome boost of optimism at a time when technological pessimism is entirely justified. He studied philosophy and computer science until dropping out in 2011 to pursue the FNF’s mission full time. The foundation, which Wilder and Wyble founded in spring 2011, hasn’t been idle since the dismantling of the Zuccotti Park camp – in 2013 it’s poised to ship an “all in one” guide to establishing your own free mesh network. When we spoke with Wilder he was overseeing a mesh-net construction in Kansas City, the same place that has become a testbed for Google’s high-cost Fiber network.
What motivated you to start building free networks?
I consider that the internet is a commons, an intellectual commons. But at present it’s very much an enclosed one. We’re trying to figure out ways to route around those choke points and say, ‘This is going to be a commons through and through, like it should be.’
What is a free network?
We view our movement as a continuation of Richard Stallman’s free-software movement. Free networks stipulate that you must share the bandwidth as a term of participating in the network. In a free network you can publish your data from your own home and it’s protected by the rule of law, which says somebody can’t just come into your home and take it. Whereas if it’s in a data centre, there’s a hundred different ways that somebody can come in and take it, often without your knowing.
What do you mean by ‘digital self-determination’?
Most people’s idea of using the internet isn’t the same as participating in the internet; we’ve gone off on this tangent of what you might call feudal lords. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon have these huge data centres, and we’re all basically subjugated by them. And unless we have decent technical skills, we’re reliant on them to keep us safe, but also for basic functions of our society, to publish and communicate our ideas. The first step to digital self-determination is the ability to keep and publish your own information rather than having to give it to somebody else to do that for you.
There have been a lot of mesh-net initiatives in the last 15-odd years; some have been a success and some have atrophied. How can you keep your project energised in the long term?
When people set out to do this 15 years ago, it was really a pipe dream. It was visionary and pioneering, but the technology wasn’t there. Now we’ve reached a tipping point, this feeling of, ‘Holy crap, this is actually really doable now!’ The idea’s time has come. But I hear what you’re saying, and I think it’s a matter of balancing urgency and patience. We constantly remind ourselves that our project has a long arc – 40, perhaps 50 years! – because our vision is very grand.
What’s the biggest challenge to your project?
In a lot of ways the biggest obstacle is changing attitudes. Stateside, there’s an attitude of ‘I do for me’, and there’s no real culture of collective action. If we can get people all over the world, in the US in particular, to participate in this one global co-operative endeavour – that will change everything.
Are mesh nets considered a threat?
I don’t think we’re a threat to anyone whose lucre is not ill-gotten. And one of our best assets is the hubris and arrogance of incumbents. This is what Microsoft experienced in the 90s when they said, ‘Yeah, Linux, that’s a bunch of freaks in their basements. It doesn’t mean shit.’ Ten years later and, ‘...Oh! All the servers are Linux.’ So in that sense, no, we’re not perceived as a threat, and that’s great.