Mesh Networks in the Indian Context – Lessons from a draconian law, a net-neutrality debate and a natural disaster
The domain of activism which started with and continues in the Free Software movement in late 2008 was centred on on the idea of a “free as in freedom”. Much of my work has involved on evangelism, going to colleges and schools and trying to get people and institutions to migrate to Free Software .We had a clear cut alternative to the existing proprietary Software / Operating systems . To be frank , there was no deep thought into the other alternative structures like – decentralised systems , p2p connections , mesh networks.
A few years later, we in the Free Software Movement were also part of the struggle against the draconian Section 66A of the Indian IT Act which allowed for arbitrary arrest for certain kinds of content posted online, the important factor being that these kinds of content were vaguely defined. This issue alongside that of the release of the Snowden documents led to me and many others beginning to think deeper on issues of surveillance and privacy. The question of emerged whether there was any fundamental alternative to the flawed centralised model of Internet and the technological upper hand of the ISPs, especially in the event of a clampdown. Though Section 66A was eventually struck down by the court, the relevance of this discussion continues today as centralised models continue to thrive.
While searching for answers to this question, the anonymised TOR networks seemed like a one portion of the answer . But the centralised system which enabled monitoring was prevalent. In short – ownership and management of networks was not in hands of the the community. In India, the stakes were raised further in 2015 when two intense, high-volume rounds of debate on net neutrality shook the digital space. Unlike in the global north, where the Internet penetration is here, the debate on net neutrality here took a very different direction. While ultimately, the principles of net neutrality triumphed, its advocates for the longest time were branded the ‘Digital Elite’, who did not mind even the poor were deprived of their chance at accessing the Internet. There was a concerted effort from champions of the centralised Internet monopolies to brand supporters of net neutrality as not caring about last mile connectivity and access. These debates also brought forward the need to work further on models of access that would also stick to the core decentralised principles of the Internet.
The 2015 December floods in the city of Chennai, which brought traditional modes of communication to a standstill .In most places, only one or two ISPs (mainly the state-owned BSNL) were able to provide connectivity .However, those living next to people with access were not able to mark themselves as safe or contact loved ones as there was no knowledge of the meshing. We understood the hard way that during disasters, mesh networks could go a long way in reducing uncertanity and comforting people.
Subsequent to all these developments, there has been a substantial increase in interest in mesh networks, both on a practical plane and one the philosophical question of centralised vs decentralised networks.
Thought put into words and curated by : Prasanth 🙂