Moreover, this free software will facilitate participatory democracy and dramatically lower user telecommunication costs
No 689 Posted by fw, March 11, 2013
“For us, the real import of this work is that communications, the free flow of communications, is fundamental to democracy. Without it, you cannot have participatory democracy. And so, what we’re really working on is a next iteration of participatory democracy with this technology.” —Sascha Meinrath
Way back on March 10, 2011, I posted this piece: Eben Moglen: “Centralized services like Facebook can kill you”. Moglen, professor of law and legal history at Columbia University, issued this warning: “If we are going to build systems of communication for future politics, we’re going to have to build them under the assumption that the network is not only untrusted, but untrustworthy. And we’re going to have to build under the assumption that centralized services can kill you.”
Well, that “system of communication for future politics” that Moglen talked about has arrived. It’s called Commotion and you can download it at CommotionWireless.net. And, Mother of All Ironies, guess who funded the project? – the U.S. State Department.
To learn more about Commotion, watch the original Democracy Now interview with Sasha Meinrath by clicking on the linked title below. Or, watch this post’s embedded 7:30-minute video, followed by an abridged transcript.
About two years ago, news reports described the State Department-funded project of Sascha Meinrath as a way for overseas dissidents to overcome repressive regimes that try to censor them by shutting down the Internet. This week a variation on the software he helped design will launch here in the United States. It is called Commotion Wireless. You can download the program on your cellphone or laptop computer in order to create what is called a “mesh” network that allows you to share Internet access with other devices on the network. “It challenges this business model that everyone has to buy their own Internet connection, and it really puts forward this notion of, well, why don’t we share resources? We can share them across our neighbors, we can share them within our offices, we can share them across entire cities,” says Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. [Note: all passages below are by Sascha Weinrath].
Commotion – free downloadable open source software that liberates digital technologies
So what we’re releasing is software that repurposes available hardware—cellphones, laptops, etc.—to allow them to communicate directly with one another. So, in addition to needing cellphone unlocking, we really want these technologies to be liberated in the same way that our personal computers can connect to, say, a network inside your home or office. We want to expand that to encompass an entire community and neighborhood, even an entire city.
How Commotion works
You download software onto these devices. And in the same way that you connect to, say, a Wi-Fi access point or hotspot, they can communicate with one another. So imagine a spider web of connectivity whereby communications can happen over large distances and across a lot of different devices.
We’ve been developing these technologies for about a dozen years now, all open source, freely available. And we’re making them available freely via the project website as well as via any other means for transporting software. So any cellphone, any laptop that has the software can be used to virally update other devices and spread the communications.
How did this surveillance-circumventing software come about?
The background for this project is back a dozen years ago. Before—a decade before Occupy, there was another global justice uprising within the United States, large-scale protests spanning a number of different cities. You covered it quite well here on Democracy Now! And during those protests, it became very clear that surveillance, monitoring of communications here in the United States, was pretty heavily undertaken by law enforcement. And a lot of us came up with the notion that what we really needed was a secure mechanism for communicating here in the U.S. that would not be surveiled and monitored. And that was the genesis of the project. It is now, in many ways, global in scope. We realize that that same need exists worldwide in a lot of different locations. And whereas one use case is secure communications, another one is providing low-cost connectivity. And so, the same technology developed for one use has profound implications across a number of different needs.
US State Department saw Commotion as useful tool for spreading democracy
They see the functioning of this technology being incredibly useful for spreading participatory democracy around the globe. And their focus is very much on: How do we accelerate the development that’s been happening now worldwide for the past dozen years?
How would Commotion work in an Egyptian sort of scenario?
In Egypt, where you have a place where the Internet was actually shut down, the notion of being able to still communicate, use your cellphones to make phone calls locally, even if the cell towers are off, is really paramount. That use case is something that the technology actually helps solve. So, in the Egyptian sort of scenario, if you’re in Tahrir Square, you would still be able to communicate, you would still be able to make phone calls, you would still be able to send text messages. In essence, you would still be able to organize and share information in real time across the local folks that are there organizing and protesting. And worldwide, of course, this has a lot of different implications for a lot of different protest movements, but also for democracy organizing, human rights work, refugee camps, etc.
Moreover, Commotion will dramatically lower telecommunication costs for individual users
You can imagine, if you’re a small business, in the same way that you might buy a single Internet connection and share it across all of your computers in your office, this is normal today to do this. What we’re saying is, well, let’s take advantage of that same kind of functionality and allow for people within, say, your office to make free phone calls to one another, to make free text messaging to one another. Huge cost savings. It challenges this business model that everyone has to buy their own Internet connection, and it really puts forward this notion of, well, why don’t we share resources? We can share them across our neighbors, we can share them within our offices, we can share them across entire cities—and in so doing, dramatically lower the costs for individual users to access communications.
If your tween and all of their friends download this software, they can text for free in their school, dramatically benefiting parents all across the country.
Commotion facilitates the next iteration of participatory democracy
We’re incredibly transparent, for obvious reasons, about where our funding comes from. It comes from a variety of different sources. For us, the real import of this work is that communications, the free flow of communications, is fundamental to democracy. Without it, you cannot have participatory democracy. And so, what we’re really working on is a next iteration of participatory democracy with this technology.
MY QUESTIONS — How is the telecommunication industry going to take this threat to its virtual telecom monopoly? Not to mention the threat to government surveillance capability? Will telecom corporations pressure politicians to pass legislation to prohibit use of this kind of free communication software?