Mesh networks in urban spaces are on the rise and are increasingly widespread and innovative. Often built by people with an interest in community networks and the distribution of power and control within the Internet, mesh networks make for a fascinating phenomena to research in the ways they bridge the social and the political. This article presents a study of Réseau Libre, an emerging mesh network community in Montréal. Started in 2012 by a group of tech activists, its original goal was to connect peers through an independent, self-funded and decentralized wireless network. By creating an autonomous long-range wireless network outside the scope of government regulation. Réseau Libre's project is inherently political and within the creeping reaches of the surveillance state, seen as increasingly necessary. In this article, we examine the history and organization of Réseau Libre, its organizational limits and physical realities. We analyze the project within its particular political context and provide a number of recommendations oriented around the future success of Réseau Libre and other similar projects around the world.
Mesh networks, surveillance, community networks, network security, Internet alternatives.
By Christina Haralanova and Evan Light
Since June 2013, documents leaked by Edward Snowden [i] have revealed long-term systematic governmental abuse of personal privacy through automated mass surveillance, this was enabled through hacking wizardry (York, 2013), legal strong-arming (Tsukayama, 2013) and corporate complicity (Timberg and Gellman, 2013). While projects for reconceptualising typical Internet communications predate the Snowden revelations, the new knowledge that we have concerning mass surveillance provides a new context and a new urgency to this work. Examples of alternet projects include mesh network software like Commotion Wireless, [ii] and Project Byzantium, [iii] peer-to-peer networking efforts like the FreedomBox, [iv] autonomous networks like the PirateBox (Anderson, 2011), [v] and large-scale mesh networks such as Guifi [vi] (Catalonia), Freifunk [vii] (Berlin) and the Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network. [viii]. Given the diversity of projects underway and in development, what might the networks of tomorrow look like, emerging from the ooze of the primordial surveillance state that we slowly learn more about everyday? Are these projects – on their own or as pieces of a larger communications ecosystem – up to the challenge of both providing communications infrastructure and safeguarding our personal privacy?
Mesh networking is a system for creating self-organising clusters of computers or wireless routers that communicate between and through one another wirelessly. In 2003, Microsoft predicted that mesh networking would become mainstream in five years; Intel’s prediction was three years (O’Brien, 2003). Mesh networks have been touted as a “solution for democratising networked communications” (Sinnreich et al., 2011), a solution for humanitarian disaster situations (Simonite, 2013) and a method for simultaneously avoiding state and corporate mass surveillance and countering the high prices of internet provided by monopoly internet providers (Thompson, 2013). All said, though, mesh networks remain far from mainstream.
In this article, we examine a developing Montreal-based mesh network, Réseau Libre, which emerged in 2012 during Quebec’s “Maple Spring” protests [ix] and the Montreal offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Occupy Montreal, [x] and began serious development during the initial Snowden revelations. Given its historical context, we were eager to discover the fundamental politics and goals of Réseau Libre. We also wanted to learn about the uses of Réseau Libre by the individuals involved and to analyse the extent to which their project-centred politics correspond to their personal uses of technology and vice-versa. A mesh network is often a technological extension of a social community of individuals. [xi] Studying Réseau Libre presents us with an interesting opportunity to evaluate a mesh network in a fundamental phase of development. It also allows us to examine personal and organisational limitations related to access, primary mission, connectivity and the autonomy of mesh networks and local hacker communities in the current context of monopolised telecommunications infrastructure.
Mesh networking projects have spread significantly and are active today in many densely-developed cities such as Berlin,[xii] New York (Cohen, 2014) and Barcelona. [xiii] Often built by hardware hackers who have an interest in community networks and the distribution of power and control within the internet, mesh networks can be seen as a step in the evolution of the concept of community wireless access as established by the widespread community wireless network (CWN) model. Whereas the CWN model focused on the fundamental issue of free internet access using consumer-grade hardware and mainstream internet providers (often in exchange for a coffee at the participating cafe), today’s mesh networking projects introduce significant changes in approach, perspective and—possibly—organisational and personal politics. By relying on mesh networking technology that is predicated on the concept of interconnectedness (computer to computer, small network to small network, neighbour to neighbour) and proximity, these projects call into question the nature of internet service provision.
If I want to access a database at my university library or a file at city hall or on my friend’s computer, why should I have to pay an intermediary to do so?
Further, mesh networks such as Réseau Libre tend to be composed of nodes maintained by individuals who know one another in the real physical world, potentially offering a means of existing, working, and collaborating electronically outside the scope of mass surveillance. These individuals are in a privileged position as the builders of the network and can thus impose their politics upon it and its users, thus they warrant special attention.
This article is organised into five sections plus the introduction. Section 1 delves into the existing literature on mesh networks. Our work here seeks to fill a significant gap in the existing literature, which tends to either be highly technical (Ali et al., 2014; Sattari-Naeini, 2014; Yu, 2014) or to focus on mature mesh networks, such as Guifi or Freifunk. Little recent work focuses on emerging mesh networks. Section 2 presents the social, political and economic contexts from which Réseau Libre has emerged and within which it operates. In particular, we discuss recent social uprisings in Quebec, the state of Canada’s telecommunications system, and domestic state surveillance practices and laws. Section 3 presents our research methodology and research questions, and briefly examines our roles as technically-minded activist-oriented social science researchers and our particular interest in the subject matter. Section 4 presents the local aspect of the mesh in Montreal and the historical background of its beginning and its evolution. Section 5 examines the limits of the mesh and conflicting perspectives of Réseau Libre members and its potential end-game. We examine organisational obstacles in the development of Réseau Libre and the extent to which it may be scaled to a critical mass of users. We, then, examine the politics of Réseau Libre members with respect the state of network security and the prerogatives and actions of members with respect to monopolised telecommunications infrastructure. The concluding discussion aims to contribute to the global debate on whether a mesh network can or should be considered as an alternative to the Internet, or as an alternative Internet provider.
Mesh networks can be seen as a logical organisational and technological progression from community wireless networks. Social science research on community wireless networks began in the early 2000s and gained significant speed in 2003 with the formation of the Canadian Research Alliance for Community Innovation and Networking (CRACIN). Looking at a landscape where a significant segment of efforts to facilitate Internet access had been funded by government, yet the effects of these efforts on society had been unexamined, CRACIN sought to fill in significant research gaps (Clement et al., 2004: 10). Research issuing from this project tended to examine grassroots and municipal wireless networks that worked to provide free access to the Internet by wireless means and in public spaces (Clement, 2012; Powell and Shade, 2006). Powell’s work, emerging from this immense research undertaking, has examined the question of whether community wireless networks are likely to produce more democratic communication spaces (Powell, 2011) and the barriers between technical subcultures and other participatory cultures (Ibid.). In the context of the UK and Australia, Gaved’s work has examined community wireless networks as a means of reducing the digital divide (Gaved, 2011) and has compared grassroots networking projects with master-planned neighbourhoods equiped networks designed and provided in a top-down manner (Gaved and Foth, 2006). While the CRACIN project was taking a critical look at community wireless networks, other researchers began to interrogate WiFi’s potential for radical decentralisation of networked communications. Bar and Galperin write WiFi as being at a critical juncture (Bar and Galperin, 2004: 50), asking if it might someday be capable of replacing wired infrastructure or whether it would simply follow its established trajectory as an extension of the wired network. Importantly, the authors also point out that wireless communication may be severely limited by policy and regulation (Ibid., 2004: 59, 2005: 2–3). Sandvig (2004) and Meinrath and Pickard (2009) have focused on the human side of wireless networks and, in different ways, examined the roles that individuals and their communities play in the design, creation and maintenance of networks. Sandvig in particular presents these networks in a deep historical context, showing the innovations made by DIY amateur (ham) radio operators in the early 20th Century and the later innovations of telephone cooperatives. While his work shows that the models of WiFi provision examined significantly improve levels of access among marginalised or under-resourced communities, Meinrath and Pickard show how such technology has been used in Chicago to provide basic Internet connectivity to a community that would not otherwise have access (Meinrath and Pickard, 2009).
Sandvig presents a number of crucial observations and questions in a piece entitled “What are Community Networks an Example of?” (2012) wherein he proposes that perhaps it would be more useful for researchers to examine each network as a unique experience existing within its particular context, rather than to compare community networks to one another. He makes four central propositions that will provide useful grounding for our analysis:
1. The community network is an example of “revolutionary infrastructure creation”;
2. The community network is an example of user autonomy and protest;
3. The community network is an example of professionalisation; and
4. The community network is a learner community.
However, while Sandvig demonstrates some of the main areas of where networks can provide unique perspective and experience, he does not offer a comprehensive methodology on how to study the unique qualities of individual networks.
Similar to Gaved’s work noted earlier, Schaffer has considered how mesh networking in the U.S. may be employed for reducing the digital divide (Shaffer, 2011). Her research examines why people “steal” wireless signals from others and why people share their capacity with one another. Her research is based on interviews with participants in 12 grassroots mesh networks across the U.S. and provides an interesting historical context for our current study. Finally, Katrina Jungnickel’s ethnographic study of an Australian mesh network (Jungnickel, 2013) goes deep inside the human inner workings of a mesh network group. Classically ethnographic, her work is largely observational and relies heavily on the technical expertise of her subjects. We learn about the individuals who comprise the network, but much of the technical and political foundations of the project are taken at face value. However, as we will see in our analysis of Réseau Libre, this is perhaps emblematic of the relationships that sometimes develop between a small core of experts who are responsible for building and maintaining the network and a larger community that is interested in using it, but may not have the technical knowledge to fully engage with it.
Social disruption, politics and telecoms
Consumer choice, when it comes to telecommunications providers in Canada, is quite limited. According to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada’s communications regulator, the “top five incumbent telecommunications service providers” earned 62% of telecommunications revenues in 2013. In addition, the top five incumbent internet service providers (ISPs) (including affiliates) control 75% of the internet access market (Government of Canada, 2014). Internationally, Canada has been documented as being one of the most expensive countries to access high-speed internet. Internet metrics company Ookla ranks Canada 20th in terms of relative cost of broadband, just above Japan among the G7 nations (Ookla, 2015). Finally, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also ranks Canada among the most expensive countries in the world in terms of internet access (Nowak, 2015; OECD, 2013). While the country boasts a number of independent ISPs, the majority of them rent wholesale infrastructure from the dominant incumbent providers.
Chris Parsons, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto Citizen Lab, has shown how the Canadian government has incredible sway over the domestic incumbent telecommunications providers. The majority of Canada’s incumbent providers offer not only internet access, but are also active in mobile telephony and television and need regulatory permits to offer these services. Thus, according to Parsons, who has conducted extensive interviews with industry insiders, the country’s telecommunications providers are hesitant to oppose governmental demands for personal information, preferring to “play nice” (Parsons, 2015). This has resulted in what the federal privacy commissioner has documented as 1.2 million requests, by the federal government to telecommunications providers, for private customer information, largely without court-issued warrants (Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, 2014; Clement and Obar, 2015). Since the Snowden leaks, there has been both increasing media scrutiny of state surveillance practices in Canada (Freeze, 2013; Hildebrandt et al., 2015; Weston et al., 2013) and an effort by the Canadian state to expand surveillance powers through the imposition of “An Act to enact the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act and the Secure Air Travel Act, to amend the Criminal Code, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts”, also known as Bill C-51 or the Anti-terrorism Act (Parliament of Canada, 2015). Academic researchers have also increasingly turned their gaze to state surveillance, including a number of studies funded by the federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC). [xiv] One such project, IXmaps, “is a mapping tool that allows you to see how your personal data travels across the internet.” [xv] The same researchers published a 2015 report on the data privacy transparency of Canadian telecommunications providers detailing the almost universally poor state of privacy safeguards among internet providers and transit providers (the corporations who makeup the backbone of the internet) (Clement and Obar, 2015). This series of factors—poor consumer choice, monopolised telecommunications providers, pervasive surveillance and poor privacy protection—provide us with the technical and economic backdrop from which Réseau Libre has emerged.
In analysing the emergence of Réseau Libre, it is also important to understand the unique social context of Quebec in 2012, the year of the network’s creation. The Quebec government’s relationship with its student population has been quite tumultuous over the past ten years and the province experienced widespread student strikes in 2005 and 2012, numerous university-focused student strikes and numerous university labour strikes. [xvi] In February 2012, college and university students went on strike in protest of massive governmental divestment in the education system. On 17 May 2012, the provincial legislature passed “Loi 78”, a special law that aimed to introduce severe controls on public protests (Lessard et al., 2012).
By the end of May, the movement could loosely be divided into three phases, each punctuated by a massive march on the 22nd of each month, each of which gathered 200,000 to 400,000 or more protesters. The first, oriented primarily toward defending accessible education and fighting privatisation models of education and other social services; the second, toward defending the commons more generally, wherein stronger links were made with environmental groups; and the third, in defense of freedom of expression and public assembly. Each of these phases was articulated by distinct social dramaturgies. At all three phases of the movement, attacks of a performative order have been launched against protest tactics: either they were too “festive” or too “violent”. In both cases the attacks occlude the actual socio-political transformation that is being enacted in the streets (Spiegel, 2012).
The strike continued until September 2012. Alongside it was the Occupy Montreal movement directly inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement and initiated as a protest camp in Montreal’s Victoria Square in October 2011 (Dalton, 2011). While protesters were eventually evicted from the camp close to a month later, on 25 November 2011, they continued to organise general assemblies for some time after (CBC News, 2011). According to one of our interview subjects, the Occupy Montreal camp was outfitted with an antenna similar to those used by Réseau Libre. Although the camp may be long gone, they claimed the antenna remains there, hidden (bgm, 2015). While the Occupy Montreal movement may have not grown to immense proportions, its existence provides us with a link between disruptions to the social order in Quebec and networked social movements and disruptions on a global scale. The fact that the student strike was morphed into a more general movement of discontent as a broad social reaction to Loi 78 and the restriction of free speech informs these connections and speaks directly to one of the the links between infrastructure ownership and freedom of expression.
Réseau Libre is not the first project in Quebec intending to bring WiFi connectivity to the masses. Our participants described a number of local rural projects, such as Un Quebec branché sur le monde, [xvii] Communautel [xviii] and Villages branchés du Québec—mostly Internet alternatives in locations where incumbent telecommunications providers refuse to operate due to the labour and investment required to extend their networks. Île Sans Fil (ISF),[xix] the original Montreal community wireless network, has helped these projects startup by installing antennas and providing conceptual direction (Lussier, 2015).
Research questions and methodology
In the current context of post-Snowden era of mass surveillance and monopolised telecommunications, it is essential to closely examine the alternative solutions offered by local grassroots tech organisations working to make public goods accessible to their immediate communities. In our experience, it is not necessarily a natural practice of these groups to make their work known to the public and thus it can take significant effort to gain access to the individuals within such organisations. In order to understand their perspectives regarding networked communication, as well as their particular practices, we aim to interrogate their methods and the means and reasoning behind them. In the case of Réseau Libre, one central question has confronted us throughout our study: Why is Réseau Libre not more extensively developed if the state affairs in terms of telecommunications and mass surveillance is so horrendous? Imagining an ideal, we would envision a strong underground network of users protecting both themselves and their personal information through the use of a mesh (or another) localised network, and using it to provide private channels of communication and exchange between peers. However, for a number of reasons, Réseau Libre has not grown as such and it is this which we address in the remainder of this paper.
Our research questions, in the context of previous research, are as follows:
1. How did Réseau Libre emerge in the Quebec context of protests and Canadian telecommunications policy and what characterises its participants’ visions in terms of scope, motivations and mission?
2. What obstacles limit the development of Réseau Libre as a viable and widespread internet alternative? What affects its organisational growth and the way in which it addresses privacy concerns?
We approach our study through a qualitative analysis of interviews with members of the Réseau Libre mesh network, these providing us with personal background information and multiple perspectives on the history of the network. While we are indeed social scientists, we also have solid technical backgrounds in networking, security and telecommunications policy and have been users of free and open-source software for close to two decades and this informs our approach. Our method aims to bring forward the personal trajectories of certain key participants, founders and developers of the mesh network. It also relies upon the personal experience of one of the authors who has been an active member of the network since its inception. She has participated in local meetings and discussions, testing network connections and antennas, participating in installations, and hosting a node on her own roof. In this way, we have maintained access to up-to-date information and an opportunity to make our own observations in parallel with the information provided the network’s website, tutorials and through the participant interviews. The professionals and amateurs working to develop the mesh have agreed to provide personal information for this project to an individual whom they know and trust. Some have also requested access to the drafts of the article to assure the information provided is both technically and ethically precise.
Our methodological goal is to understand and describe the personal perspectives and positioning of the mesh network participants based on our long-term engagement with the field and the community. As participant-observers, we aim to carefully listen to participants’ experiences and to give them meaning, help to structure them and bring their experiences into the processes of planning and acting. We are also looking for common features and patterns in relation to a bigger picture rather than examining each issue in isolation. The focus is placed on the actual processes taking place in the community, with respect to external forces and contexts. We relate strongly to Sandvig’s proposition that community networks should be examined according to their own unique set of conditions and thus aim to interpret the history and current state of Réseau Libre according to his four points of analysis: infrastructure, autonomy, professionalisation and learner community (2012).
Participants in the study are members and founders of Réseau Libre mostly living in Montreal. We contacted all members through the Réseau Libre open email list inviting the respondents to participate. They were first invited to participate in an online survey consisting of 20 questions. The questions included queries related to their personal participation in the mesh network, including technical specifications of their nodes, personal motivations, expectations and ethical visions. Knowing the technical preferences of the participants led us to understand their technical abilities, budgetary considerations and infrastructural preferences. For example, in response to the question, “Who installed your antenna?”, many participants admitted they did not have the technical skills for installing it, but stated that they had help from other motivated and knowledgeable members. Other questions we asked in the preliminary interview were related to the uses and motivations for joining Réseau Libre; to the role of participants in the creation and development of the network, how participants first got involved, and how active they are with respect to their node and surrounding nodes. Finally, we ask about the future plans and visions of the members with respect to their personal involvement in the mesh community in general. We invited all network participants for expansive face-to-face interviews. Ultimately, eight of 42 network participants answered the online survey and six met us for 45-90 minute interviews, representing roughly 15% of all Réseau Libre members. Through the interviews, we aimed to obtain a more detailed overview of the personal trajectory of each participant towards involvement in mesh networks including their technical skills, political visions, personal motivations, personal philosophy regarding telecommunications providers, mass surveillance and mesh networks in general. The methodology of this research has been kept relatively flexible providing space for the participants to discuss issues they find important.
The evolution and local aspects of Reseau Libre
The idea to start an independent mesh network in Montreal originated with a few individuals and organisations who had been working separately on mesh, WiFi or local Internet access projects. Here, we will look more closely at the unique perspectives and diverse motivations of the participants who started Réseau Libre in order to gain an understanding of their motivations and personal philosophies related to technology, activism, and mesh networking.
One of the groups, which had begun to explore mesh technology and the city’s rooftop geography, consisted of techno-activists and practitioners who initially began testing connections between private homes in their neighbourhood. At the end of 2011, they started publishing the results of their tests on a public wiki thus gaining online visibility. [xx]
I had a neighbour, 500 metres from my place, and we thought: Let’s put antennas on the roof and connect. On our side, it was really connecting houses together to see what happens. We had no idea what we were doing. (bgm, 2015)
Meanwhile, a group of WiFi and networking professionals, some of whom were former volunteers of Montreal community wireless network Île Sans Fil (ISF), began looking for less corporate and more autonomous WiFi projects to experiment with (Lussier, 2015; Tahini, 2015). Inspired by the idea of free or very low cost Internet distribution and a number of similar projects in other parts of the world they wanted to see if it would be possible to develop an alternative in Montreal that would be open to experimentation and permit them to learn more about the technology.
Technically, [mesh networking] is quite complex, therefore the geeks have lots of fun playing with the technology. It’s far from being standard, that’s why it’s challenging. (Lussier, 2015)
Another branch of pre-Réseau Libre initiatives was called mesh-mtl.org [xxi] and was one of numerous attempts by local hackers to found a “monopoly-independent ISP”, a project that came to fruition. However, the ideas remained fertile and its founder continued looking for opportunities to build an independent WiFi network around Montreal.
Shortly after the the mesh experiment wiki archives were put online, they were discovered by other groups of interested individuals, one of whom proposed a meeting to discuss a possible independent project—the Réseau Libre. A meeting in a downtown Montreal bar, L’Escalier, followed. Thus, Réseau Libre emerged as a meeting point for sharing ideas among these isolated projects and experimental aspirations and was greatly facilitated by the fact that many of its founders knew each other through different previous techno-activist and local hacker projects.
Today, Réseau Libre represents a community of technologically apt individuals interested in wireless networking and free and open-source software. The Réseau Libre community presents the project as an “independent, decentralised mesh” [xxii] with open infrastructure, collaborative space and willingness to offer an alternative to telecommunications monopolies. As of February 2016, Réseau Libre consists of 45 active nodes and about 120 nodes planned or being built. [xxiii] As the map [xxiv] shows, some nodes are connected to each other, and others are completely isolated. The majority use omni-directional antennas with WiFi modems, such as Ubiquity Bullets, [xxv] costing between $100-$200, resistant to all kinds of outdoor conditions and capable of providing basic connectivity to a limited territory. For software, Réseau Libre members largely use Commotion [xxvi] to configure and manage their nodes. Many of the Réseau Libre members we interviewed have been involved since its beginning in late 2011 and early 2012. Most have basic antennas, but some have invested in more sophisticated ones. Some have created local clusters of nodes, other are completely isolated from other nodes, except through virtual private network (VPN). [xxvii] Some are “in-between antennas” and temporarily disconnected from the mesh due to technical or other reasons, such as moving houses, experiencing floods or landlord disputes around roof access.
Figure 1: The map shows the nodes situated on the island of Montreal. In green are the active nodes. In blue – the potential or being built at the moment. The red ones are special antennas.
Réseau Libre’s technical infrastructure is quite minimal. The self-funded nodes are kept small and the project has so far evolved with the use of consumer-grade hardware and open-source software. The technology used—antennas, routers, modems, software—has already been vetted and deployed by other mesh networks and has been shown to be appropriate based on usability, market price, open-source nature and extreme weather compatibility. This avoids users having to spend excessive amounts of money for technology that may not be usable in the local conditions. While the infrastructure and hardware/software used by Réseau Libre participants does not imply innovation in itself (see the first proposal of Sandvig, 2012), the fact that users can build a node for just a few hundred dollars with non-expert technical skills, enables a number of affordances. It permits for the participation of highly-skilled participants, as well as by participants who are interested in being a node and simply have access to their own roof. The “revolution” in the infrastructural aspect therefore is its availability, access and affordability.
Figure 2: Réseau Libre antenna installation
Figure 3: Réseau Libre antenna installation
Figure 4: Réseau Libre installation with view of Montréal
Sandvig’s second proposal for examining the uniqueness of community networks relates them being examples of “user autonomy and protest” (2012). Réseau Libre has been created based on activist principles of internet freedom and independence from monopolised telecommunications infrastructure. While certain participants have declared that their motivation is purely technological, for others, aligning with political goals has been an important asset of building the network. Interview participants stated that they agree with the activist and engaged vision of a project that is explicitly free and open-source software-oriented, independent, informal and not-for-profit. Lack of corporate interest is emphasised and thus it is self-financed and volunteer-operated. The idea of incorporating paid staff into the project is unanimously considered to be a potential mistake that would risk ruining the organisation. In part, this is because each member’s motivations are very different. There is no dominant vision as to how the mesh will develop and participants fear the introduction of a central figure could impede consensus decision-making, a guiding principle of the organisation. In addition, one of the research participants stated that many of the hackers and activists active in Réseau Libre did not previously know how to work according to consensus before. After participating in the Occupy movement, they gained experience and the Réseau Libre decision-making process is now more efficient.
All participants have strong negative opinion about the state of ISP and Internet monopoly in Montreal and Quebec. Most participants complained about upload and download speeds, high prices, security and privacy problems, and bandwidth caps that characterise the services offered by incumbent telecommunications providers. Therefore, Réseau Libre is providing functionality they cannot get from the big Internet service providers. For this, the majority have chosen to use smaller ISPs, even with the awareness that they are dependent on monopoly infrastructure infrastructure nevertheless. Some of the participants’ ISP preferences are Tecksavvy, Electronicbox, Colba.net, Gemstelecom and Fido for cell phone data usage.
Teksavvy, I like them because they are pretty transparent; they protect from all sorts of silly lawsuits, copyright trolls, they provide ipv6. (bgm, 2015)
Almost as a form of protest, research participants do not use cellphones often, even if they are quite technically adept and depend on digital technology to work and to experiment with hobby activities (such as hacking, ham radio, programming). In comparison, survey participants listed a large number of devices which they connect to the Réseau Libre network, such as laptops, telephony, media servers, home monitoring systems, home file servers, thermostats, outdoor lights, Xboxes, RaspberryPis and amplifiers. For most of these services, a mesh network connection, rather than an Internet connection, could be sufficient for local needs. Even among the participants who do use cellphones, there is an open discourse against them. Users are either using a very simple phone (for dialing and texting only) or a smart phone alternative to mainstream ones (e.g., FirefoxOS phone). Many claim to need a cell phone for work emergencies, for being reachable by clients, and receiving server notifications. Most use the cellular provider Fido, perhaps a nod to its early days of independence. [xxviii]
From participants in both interviews and online survey, we learned that the majority of Réseau Libre members are highly technical. They are either hardware and radio amateurs, or software and networking professionals. Out of the eight participants, at least five are software developers, working in different spheres of computer science, such as web development, information security, research and development. All have demonstrated a preference for free and open source software and have a strong sense of self-learning. A majority of the participants are involved in small cooperatives or technology-oriented NGO or activist groups, either working full-time or actively participating as members and volunteers.
Sandvig’s third proposal, that a community network can be seen as an example of professionalisation, is something that can also be observed in the case of Réseau Libre. Although most of the participants report very good networking and programming skills, many admit to having lower competencies with hardware tools, such as network routers, WiFi antennas and network cabling. However, a majority of the participants in the study indicated they had installed antennas by themselves or with a little help from their peers. They also indicated that the Réseau Libre project is serving them as a platform and infrastructure to learn more about hardware and mesh networking in general.
For those participants more experienced with mesh networking and WiFi, experimentation is not the primary motivation. Instead, they want to add value to the new network in comparison to traditional Internet connections. Such added value could be connecting directly to a neighbour to play games or watch TV together, or archiving large files on a remote server. The range of 60-240 megabit speed offered by the mesh network infrastructure is at least 10 times greater than what a regular ISP in Canada can offer at any time for a reasonable price (Packman, 2015).
In one way or another, Réseau Libre represents an example of professionalisation, either as a new field of exploration made possible through inexpensive hardware and open standards, or through the building of a network that allows users to explore wireless networking in their own way, and adapt it to their personal needs. For most study participants, such an acquisition of new knowledge and skills is of great personal and professional benefit.
Sandvig’s final proposal, that a networking community can be an example of a learning community, can also be seen in the case of Réseau Libre. It provides a way for a learner community to gather, evolve and discuss issues around the provision of local services over the mesh network. All the study participants are Réseau Libre volunteers; many have no commercial interest in the project, rather they are excited by the possibility experimenting with software and hardware they have not “played” with before. “Hacking WiFi”—and the will to learn more about “opening the black box of the router”, together with affordable and weather-fit equipment—creates the opportunity for such experiments to become real. In all interviews the learning process around mesh hacking, and the personal enthusiasm are all seen as “fun” and “play”: “I don’t know what to do with Réseau Libre yet… for now it’s a platform for experimentation by a bunch of a geeks” (Tahini, 2015), adding: “If we can see each other through the network, that’d be fun. :)”. Fun, in itself is a reason enough for the hackers to do what they do, and a way to learn new things, as well.
Mesh limits and conflicts of vision
We have sought here to identify the obstacles that impede the development of Réseau Libre as a viable and widespread networking project. Indeed, it is debatable whether Réseau Libre will ever develop as an alternative to incumbent Internet providers or as Internet alternative providing autonomous connectivity between its members. Some of these obstacles or limitations speak to specific fundamental challenges faced by any “alternative” telecommunications infrastructure provider today.
This first vision of the mesh network, as an alternative to incumbent Internet providers, presents Réseau Libre as having the full potential to become an alternative provider in the city, based on principles of independence from monopoly, and a not-for-profit approach that limits the cost of internet access for individuals or small group end-users, such as housing or work cooperatives, libraries and others. The other vision—perhaps more idealistic—is linked to the idea that the network is not and will never be used for commercial purposes, such as providing and selling Internet access. Instead, it will be used as a local alternative to the Internet all together. This dualistic potential of the community represents a formidable obstacle to its further development as a unified community project. According to its members, the survival and evolution of the network relies on two factors: (1) the involvement of more users and antennas in order to link the existing ones in a more consistent network, and (2) offering more diversified services to existing members so that they remain on the network. Both positions seem to be linked to each other, and appear to be a continuation to the more global debate on the future of Réseau Libre.
The second conflicting point, while not expressed by the Reseau Libre community itself, but by us as researchers and observers, is the question of the network security and the privacy of its end-users. While there is heightened concern about privacy issues among the Réseau Libre members, the network is currently open with no security mechanisms installed onto it. While the hacker discourse turns around the individual responsibility of every single person who connects to the network, it appears that the Réseau Libre members, being technically adept and aware of security problems themselves, are allowing non-technical and unaware users to connect, without security warning or protecting their privacy in any way, nor are they securing the network itself.
Later in this article, we examine these in more detail.
Alternative Internet provider or alternative to the Internet altogether?
In our study, we observed that many project participants were concerned with the monopoly practices of large telecommunications providers and ISPs in Canada, practices that result in poor Internet connectivity and the systematic invasion of customer privacy. Building an independent network based on fundamental principles of freedom and privacy rights, a mean for sharing of information, and maintaining local communication seems to be a functionality of Réseau Libre members agree upon. Impeding the intrusion of commercial logic into the Réseau Libre project is a condition supported by the members. On the other side, providing limited services (including Internet) to neighbours and friends with “no particular profit” makes good use of the network. For example, Internet access went down at one member house and another node provided an emergency connection for a few days until the member’s connection was restored. However, members maintain a shared vision of keeping the project from becoming a for-profit Internet service provider, in a competitive and commercialised spirit.
The desire for building an alternative network of users, independent from the Internet, comes with the concern of how to get a critical mass of users to manage to connect everyone throughout the city, and for the project to grow and thrive without outside support. A possible solution would be to create more services and benefits for the antenna owners. Currently, there are few real benefits for the users, especially for those who are not directly interested in setting up network access by themselves. Due to the use of consumer-grade equipment, the network is still unreliable and quite slow. For technically proficient users, there is the fun gained through experimentation, improvement and learning from technology. This, however, is not an attractive feature for non-technical users and those who search for specific types of performance.
We asked our research participants what services could possibly be useful to a mass of users. “We have to build a network that works, we have to create the reason for people to use it” (Packman, 2015). Speed and unlimited traffic are definitely two interesting assets of the mesh, potentially offering nodes a connection tens of times faster than any Internet service offered at present in Canada. Moreover, end-users of traditional Internet service providers often have limits on the amount of data they can transmit in a given month. Thus, using the mesh network locally without the need to use their quota from the ISP would provide multiple possibilities, such as locally-bound communication and shared backup capacity.
My idea for a killer application is a privatised version of Dropbox, where we have anonymous space on each other’s servers, a lot of us, the guys that have antennas on the roofs. My house burned down 15 years ago. It’s great to have offsite backups of the stuff that is existentially irreplaceable. Now we can do it—but everyone’s DSL upstream sucks. And Bell Canada is only happy to keep it that way. There’s no market for it. (Packman, 2015) [xxix]
Some other ideas for using the local connectivity include: geolocalisation services, chat service, file sharing, backup exchange, and local communication between neighbours. Recreating a mini-network around the house for automation of electronic appliances, creating a mini-file and/or media server for local needs are also ways to use the mesh, while producing limited Internet traffic.
Another discussed future for the Réseau Libre network is to provide free (or very low cost) Internet to low-income communities and individuals. Réseau Libre members often spoke to us about ways to use the mesh for local distribution of Internet to neighbours and small communities of users. There are equal numbers of participants supporting and disputing the statement that “projects like Réseau Libre can create alternative ways of distributing the ‘last mile’ [xxx] and connect more people for less money” (Lussier, 2015). Those who believe that there is a strong potential for Réseau Libre to develop into an alternative ISP believe it is possible maintain its political, Internet freedom, alternative, independent and ad-hoc local characteristics while doing so. Also, because Réseau Libre promotes the rights of freedom and privacy, Internet users could align with those principles and rely on a provider they trust. Others support the importance to start offering Internet-style services on an off-line network.
It’s still interesting that even if we are all interconnected to the Internet, many of our communications and needs for connection and services are local (they are all talking on Facebook, but they are all talking locally, even in the same room). It would be interesting to re-appropriate those services. (bgm, 2015)
One problem mentioned regarding Internet provision is the centralisation of authority that stems from this process. How is trust being built between users and providers? Currently, in Canada the liability for using the Internet for illegal purposes is assumed by the provider, who of course cannot guarantee that users will engage only in legal activity. Another issue is the risk inherent in non-encrypted traffic passing from the users to the provider, and the latter being able to track the usage. Due to the open nature of the network, traffic is easily “sniffed” and analysed by whoever may choose to do so (bgm, 2015). [xxxi] Internet connectivity provided through the mesh tends also to be slower depending on your distance from the nearest antenna. While there are number of current limitations to the project, with careful planning and a local focus on a limited number of nodes and users, there are possibilities for success.
There may be a middle-ground where different nodes and neighborhoods invest in different projects (as is the case at the moment); allowing certain members to use the mesh to provide “last mile” connectivity. Meanwhile, other users could keep it low investment and continue to experiment with the technology, either individually or in smaller groups. Others may invest their time and money in developing a faster and more far-reaching connection, allowing more services to be developed and shared among the nodes. The advancement of these services seems to be the motivation of the members into developing towards a more evolved project. In both cases, it seems that members will have to invest in better equipment and strategies for offering more services to their neighbours in order to maintain interest and attract more members. Ultimately, the future of Réseau Libre hinges on how it approaches the dominant commercial nature of Internet provision.
The ways in which debate and decision-making occur within the organisation could play a significant role in Réseau Libre’s future. If kept in its current state, the mesh network will maintain its low number of users and participants. It may achieve its local goals of testing and experimentation, but it will not have enough tools and services to make membership more attractive to more users, especially to those less technically inclined. This debate itself risks pushing away certain individuals who believe a local off-line mesh to be the Internet alternative they are looking for.
In the current phase, Réseau Libre members are not ready to say where it will head next. The multiplicity of projects helps to develop individual capacities, dialogues and ideas. Experimentation with Internet and other types of connectivities and services is ongoing and it is not clear how and if those diversified ideas will become more synchronised in the future. As one participant noted, most of the discussions over the past three years have been related to the technical aspects of mesh development. There has been no discussion on its future or social aspects such as building a critical mass of users.
We have to first make the network function, and once it works, other folks will want to join. I think we can find some unique applications—thus causing it to grow; and once it grows enough, the potential is there. (Lussier, 2015)
There are certainly some problematic issues such as speed, connection stability and lack of policy decisions regarding privacy and security. To solve these issues will take time and strategic planning. For now, as Lussier (2015) mentions, “We are not there yet. We have not paid even one bill in the name of Réseau Libre. We do not exist yet. We do not know how to share the responsibility.”
In addition to the social and political conditions that Réseau Libre has emerged from, participants also mentioned a number of local particularities that Réseau Libre has been facing in its development and that will have to be taken in consideration in the charting the future of the network. Inspired by big mesh networks, such as Guifi in Barcelona, Montreal’s mesh activists have realised that the infrastructure of the city, as well as Internet users’ needs are very different. These needs must be met if they are to be to build a network of the size of one in Barcelona. After a number of experiments, members of Réseau Libre noticed that Montreal is a difficult city to develop a mesh network in. The city is very spread out, with buildings predominantly two to three stories tall, and very few higher ones. This does not allow for small antennas to make very long-distance connections. WiFi connectivity is also interrupted by trees, which are numerous in the city. For these reasons, small clusters of mesh networking nodes have appeared in different neighborhoods, though these clusters have difficulty connecting to one another. Many members are still isolated from other nodes, using the Internet to join the mesh. While the routers in the antennas used are very resistant to the weather conditions, project participants admit that one of the biggest constraints for the mesh to grow is the fact that majority of the inhabitants of the city live in rented buildings and cannot access their roofs to install antennas. Moreover, Montreal tenants tend to move often, taking their antennas with them and thus shifting the network itself. One of the participants complained that Réseau Libre cannot even write proper instructions for node installation, because the architectural aspects of the buildings, wiring and electrical schematics in Montreal apartments are very different from one another.
All Réseau Libre members interviewed for this case study spoke out against the state of monopolised telecommunications infrastructure in Canada and many addressed the issue of mass surveillance, which has been facilitated by these infrastructure providers. Some are employed as or self-identify as security experts; all seemed genuinely outraged by the information conveyed through the Snowden revelations that the bulk of our digital conversations are being summarily recorded by the National Security Agency. Over the past three years, the concept of encryption has gone from a specialist term with a limited audience to one featured daily in news stories and presidential debates. Barely a year after the Snowden revelations, CBS News, a major American news outlet, carried a story on how the use of encrypted emails was rising amid fears of mass surveillance (Associated Press, 2014). Given these factors and the critical reactions of the general public, why have the responses of the specialist public of Réseau Libre been so tepid given the opportunity to create something anew?
To a certain extent, research participants have attempted to put their discourse into action and all use so-called [xxxii] independent Internet service providers. Further, those who are cellphone subscribers (two are not) claim to be critical of their use of cellphones by using Fido, a formerly independent cellular provider that has since become a brand of Rogers (Shmuel, 2013). However, according to a recent report on data privacy transparency among Canadian telecommunications providers, “the ‘fighting brands’ of major mobile carriers, Virgin Mobile, Fido and Koodo, all score below average and are significantly less transparent than their corporate owners, Bell, Rogers and Telus respectively” (Clement and Obar, 2015: 26). This leads us to believe that while Réseau Libre core members may be technologically advanced and self-identify as critical users of technology, they are willing to advance their personal security practices only to the point that it is convenient. For the sake of argument, however, there are no cellphone choices (other than abstinence) that one can adopt in Canada that would make a substantial difference in terms of safeguarding one’s privacy. Indeed, the individuals we interviewed tended to address this concern by minimising the ways they access the Internet. Two of five did not have cellphones, one had a FirefoxOS phone used exclusively to access servers in the case of emergencies (bgm, 2015), and one had a phone to use exclusively with WiFi networks, including his own experimental high-speed wireless network (Packman, 2015).
The concept of network security, while it may be seen as a positive by-product of mesh networking, is not integrated into the core functionality of network design of Réseau Libre. This is not because it has been overlooked, rather network security appears to have been quite consciously put aside. Instead, it has been framed in terms of responsiblity on the part of end-users. Indeed, one core member offers free Internet access through a WiFi hotspot and then re-routes users through an encrypted portal. Users assume the same risks as they would in a cafe with an open hotspot (bgm, 2015). Another core member stated that Réseau Libre took “no security approach” and that it entirely the responsibility of users to protect themselves (xSmurf, 2015). Is there anything, then, that differentiates this mesh network in terms of security from the non-transparent corporate networks they claim to contest?
Réseau Libre’s security-inspired origins appear to have been set out as ideals, preconditions that have perhaps proven to be unrealistic for a network of small scale. In fact, it appears that, according to the core members we have interviewed, a lack of security on the mesh has been rationalised as no worse than the internet-at-large. “The mesh is not very secure, no matter who can ‘sniff’ it and see information on the mesh. It’s in fact as insecure as the Internet itself” (Lussier, 2015). There is, however, a significant difference between Réseau Libre and Internet access that one purchases from a corporation. ISPs generally employ security professionals who police their networks, assuring some level responsibility for network security. A mix of specialised hardware, software and staff then are charged with ensuring the trustworthiness of the network. (Bury et al., 2010) have described how mesh networks generally suffer from security issues due to their “open” nature and their desire to engage with large non-specialised populations (Ibid., 229). Through our interviews with core members of Réseau Libre, it has become evident that network security is conceived of in two conflicting ways. First, on Réseau Libre there is no such thing as network security in terms of your information being safe and it thus the responsibility of users to protect themselves accordingly. Second, the security of the network infrastructure in and of itself relies on human relationships and it is these trust relations that are then grafted onto the network links. These two approaches may be feasible on a small scale, but both begin to have serious difficulties when one thinks of their application to a network that may include hundreds or thousands of nodes and thus hundreds or thousands of individual users.
Conclusions and recommendations
Much of the literature on mesh networks focuses on networks that are successful and one of the keys to the success of a number of these is a lack of service of reasonable quality and cost provided by the private sector. We have focused on the case of Réseau Libre specifically because of the way its historical context might inform its architecture, both current and future. Taking it as accepted knowledge that our digital conversations on the Internet are being collected, how is it possible to build a network that is innately private? Can a guarantee of privacy every become integral to the functioning of the networks we use, fundamental to their politics? In this closing section, we present a number of conclusions and recommendations and hope they will be useful for Réseau Libre and the broader community. As engaged scholars, we want to propose that projects in development and the issues with which they are grappling—as unruly, unpredictable and frustrating as they may be—are useful objects of study. They can help us contribute concretely to both these projects and to broader debates on access, privacy and security.
1. Réseau Libre, while using software and hardware produced by others, has paid more attention to the technical aspects of their network design than the social aspects and are thus at an impasse. What can this network offer the public—their community—that nobody else can offer? At this critical juncture wherein the public-at-large is informed to some degree about mass surveillance and increasingly cares about personal privacy, Réseau Libre has the opportunity to integrate privacy practices into the foundation of their network and make it a core facet of their public identity. Given this unique opportunity, we recommend that Réseau Libre take the initiative to step in where other network providers in Canada seem to be unable or unwilling to protect the privacy of their users.
2. To take advantage of this unique opportunity to intervene in the spaces of privacy and digital infrastructure, we recommend that Réseau Libre engage more broadly with technical development and policy debates. While the technology upon which their network is premised relies upon the use of the radio spectrum, no participants interviewed had ever intervened in spectrum policy debates in Canada or elsewhere. Similarly, our respondents were universally critical of Canada’s new anti-terrorism law, yet none had communicated with their elected officials to voice their concerns. By intervening in public venues and processes, one leaves a public record and presents examples of alternative methods to both those in power and others who may look to you for a model or who may be in a similar or earlier stage of organisational development. Step up to the policy plate!
3. Réseau Libre can be seen as an evolution in the practices of alternative and independent media, in the appropriation of technical resources for communication. It does so by creating a space not unlike those created by community radio and television stations and community newspapers—a space for physical, technical and philosophical experimentation. It offers a unique flexibility by permitting for experimental practice to the extent that profit motives or alternatives are even not defined. Interpreting this network within the broader and older movement of Canadian alternative and community media could help provide a large base of potential nodes/users and contribute innovative seeds of actions to established organisations that are seeking to modernise older forms of communicational infrastructure.
In today’s post-Snowden era, citizens are organising around ideas of alternative connectivity, private digital communications, and autonomous networks. Our Internet communications have become increasingly “polluted” by the smoke of surveillance, our data continuously collected by governments and private corporations. Further, when technically savvy populations are provided with limited and over-priced access to telecommunications resources, they are pushed to think in alternative ways. Mesh networks such as Réseau Libre are examples of local communities organising against monopolised infrastructure by using consumer-grade technology to build distributed networks.
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The Maple Spring was a 7.5-month-long student strike in Quebec that morphed into broader protests over freedom of expression and government corruption. The student strike lasted from 13 February, 2012 to 7 September 2012.
For instance, in 2009, professors at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) were on strike for for six weeks and the local student unions went on strike in solidarity with them. Both authors were graduate students at UQAM during the 2005 and 2012 student strikes and the 2009 professors’ strike.
Site offline at time of writing.
A VPN creates an encrypted private network across a public network, like a mesh network or the internet.
The “last mile” is providing Internet connectivity for people who are not served by large providers, because, for instance, operating in rural communities for those providers is not profitable enough.
It is fairly trivial to use open-source software to record the online activities of individuals using unsecured WiFi connections and to reconstruct their activities.
We say “so-called” because incumbent telecommunications providers in Canada almost universally own the physical infrastructure that brings cables into peoples’ homes. Independent ISPs rent this infrastructure and provide their own services over-top. It is unclear the extent to which this data may analysed/surveilled by the incumbent providers.
Christina Haralanova is at Mobile Media Lab, Concordia University
Evan Light is Assistant professor at Communication and Organizations School of Translation, Glendon College, York University