The fallout from the revolution (or what might become one) in Egypt is that it has started people in the US and elsewhere asking a very important question:  “What if the government turned off the Internet?”  Readers of this blog will know that I advocate community ownership of the pipes that connect the Internet and this is why.  Everybody knows that the President of the United States has the power to issue an executive order to shut down the Internet and that maybe 95% of all Internet packets pass through Virginia.  How shutting down the Internet would be done is not entirely clear, but the powers are written into law.  This is no longer a theoretical possibility.  It happened in Egypt.

So what are some of the “applications for the apocalypse”?  It turns out that ham radio, faxes, modems, dial up, Fidonet and WiFi, coupled with peer to peer network overlays, are where people are starting to consider solutions.  Imagine if the Internet could carry on just as before, but with only WiFi home routers as the nodes?  Could that happen?  Not currently.  We don’t have answers to how to lookup our DNS entries, if we had to rely on a thrown-together, ad-hoc, distributed network.  We don’t have good answers for how to keep email running, or even IRC chat, let alone Skype, Google, Facebook, Wikipedia and Twitter.  Border Gateway Routers?  Forget it!

It is becoming clear that the applications we know and love on the Internet are now becoming essential to modern life, in a way that few predicted.  This fabric is essential to maintain some semblance of independent thought, freedom of expression and awareness of what criminals in government might be trying to do.  Information is power.

So what might come of the current turmoil in Egypt is that more technically minded people will begin to think about and design systems, technologies and software that continue to permit our Internet (and it is ours – we created most of the content) to basically function, even if the backbones and major data centres are powered down entirely.  If the solutions they devise make it possible to maintain search, chat, email, blogs, live voice communications and so on, using only resources under the control of the people, then we’ll truly be immune to government actions such as we have witnessed in Egypt.  The key is in the connectivity.  Wireless can ultimately be blocked.  Symmetric Fibre to the Home is essential and we must own and control it.  Once we have it, it is very hard to tear it all out of the ground.

Taking it one step further, there are technologies that can already power the nodes, off grid.  So renewable energies are necessary not just to save our fossil fuels and reduce global warming.  They’re an important protection for our freedoms.  Dictators can’t stop their people developing renewable energy sources, because they can’t ignore global warming without risking revolt.  They’re stuck with it.

We live in interesting times, no doubt about it.  In the mean time, let us hope that our governments behave in a somewhat more democrat manner than what we are witnessing in Egypt.  We have our hopes, but few guarantees.

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