Now that we are facing net neutrality regulation rollbacks here in the United States, what new roles could librarians play in the continued struggle to provide people with unrestricted access to information? ALA has long been dedicated to equal access to information, as clearly outlined in both the Core Values and Code of Ethics. You can read ALA’s Joint Letter to the FCC here. It emphasizes that “a non-neutral net, in which commercial providers can pay for enhanced transmission that libraries and higher education cannot afford, endangers our institutions’ ability to meet our educational mission.”
Net neutrality was discussed back in 2014 on this blog, with Margaret Heller’s post entitled “What Should Academic Librarians Know about Net Neutrality?” We recommend you start there for some background on the legal issues around net neutrality. It includes a fun trip into the physical spaces our content traverses through to get onto our screens. One of the conclusions of that post was that libraries need to work on ensuring that everyone has access to broadband networks to begin with, and that more varied access ensures that no company has a monopoly over internet service in a location. There have been a number of projects along these lines over the past decade and more, and we encourage you to find one in your area and get involved.
Equal access to information starts with having access at all. Several libraries have kicked off initiatives in activities like loaning out wi-fi hotspots for several-month periods in New York City, Brooklyn, and Chicago.
Ideally everyone will have secure and private internet access.The Library Freedom Project has been working for years to protect the privacy of patrons, including educating librarians about the threat of surveillance in modern digital technology, working with Tor Project to configure Tor exit relays in library systems, and creating educational resources for teaching patrons about privacy.
These are some excellent steps towards a more democratic and equal access to information, but what happens if the internet as we know it fundamentally changes? Let’s explore some “alternative internets” that rely on municipal and/or grassroots solutions.
You might be familiar with wireless mesh networks for home use. You can set up a wireless mesh network in your own house to ensure even coverage across the house. Since each node can cover a certain part of your house, you don’t have to rely on how close you are to the wireless router to connect. You can also change the network around easily as your needs change.
Mesh networks are dynamically routed networks that exchange routes, internet, local networks, and neighbors. They can be wireless or wired. Mesh networks may not be purely a “mesh” but rather a combination of “mesh network” technology as well as “point to point” linking, with connections directly linking to each other, and each of these connections expanding out to their local mesh networks. BMX6/BMX7, BATMAN, and Babel are some of the most popular network protocols (with highly memorable names!) for achieving a broad mesh network, but there are many more. Just as you can install devices in your home, you can cooperate with others in your community or region to create your own network. The LibreMesh project is an example of a way in which DIY wireless networks are being created in several European countries.
Nineteen towns in Colorado are exploring alternate internet solutions, like a public alternative. Chattanooga offers public gigabit internet speeds. This has some major advantages for the city, including the ability to offer free internet access to low-income residents and ensure that anyone who pays for access gets the same level of access, which is not the case in most cities where some areas pay a high cost for a low signal. Even just the presence and availability of municipal broadband, “has radically altered the way local politicians and many ordinary Chattanoogans conceive of the Internet. They have come to think of it as a right rather than a luxury.”1 A similar initiative in Roanoke is the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, which in an interesting twist lobbied the Virginia legislature to reduce oversight of its activities in a bill that originally specifically stated that broadband services should focus on underserved areas–so a reminder that in many ways municipalities view this as an investment in business rather than a social justice issue. 2 In Detroit, the Detroit Community Technology Project is working to set up and bring community wireless to neighborhoods in Detroit. New York City‘s Red Hook neighborhood relied on their mesh network during Hurricane Sandy to stay connected to outside of New York. New York City also has the rapidly-growing NYC Mesh community with two supernodes and another coming later this year, uniting lower Manhattan with Northern and Central Brooklyn. Toronto also has an emerging mesh community with a handful of connected nodes. The Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center developed CUWiN, which provided open wireless networks in “Champaign-Urbana, Homer, Illinois, tribal lands of the Mesa Grande Reservation, and the townships of South Africa”. 3
Outside of North America, Berlin has its own mesh networked, called Freifunk. Austria has Funkfeuer. Greece has the Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network. Italy has Ninux and Argentina has AlterMundi. Villages in rural northern England are joining together to get connected via a cooperative model called B4RN, where they dig their own trenches for cables using their farm tractors.
Guifi.net is a wi-fi network that covers a large part of Spain and defines itself as “the biggest free, open and neutral network.” It was developed in 2004 as a response to the lack of broadband Internet, where commercial Internet providers weren’t providing a connection or a very poor one in rural areas of the Catalonia region. Guifi has established a Wireless Commons License as guidelines that can be adopted by other networks. At time of posting, 34,306 nodes were active, with over 17,000 planned.
Finally, Brooklyn Public Library was granted $50,000 from IMLS to develop a mesh network and called BKLYN Link, along with a technology fellowship program for 18-24 year olds. Looking forward to what emerges from this initiative!
The internet was started when college campuses connected to each other across first short geographic areas and eventually much longer distances. Could we see academic and public libraries working together and leading the return to old ways of accessing the internet for a new era?
Meanwhile, it’s important to ensure that the FCC has appropriate regulatory powers over ISPs, otherwise we have no recourse if companies choose to prioritize packets. You should contact your legislators and make sure that the people at your campus who work with the government are sharing their perspectives as well. You can get some help with a letter to Congress from ALA.