Expanding the Internet Commons: The Subversive Potential of Wireless Community Networks image

Primavera De Filippi and Félix Tréguer

(An abridged version of this paper has been published in the Journal of Peer Production, Issue #6: Disruption and the LawRead the full paper here)

‘Freedom is fostered when the means of communication are dispersed, decentralized, and easily available, as are printing presses and microcomputers. Central control is more likely when the means of communication are concentrated, monopolized, and scarce, as are great networks.’ (Sola Pool 1983, p. 5)

Ithiel de Sola Pool, an American political scientist and legal analyst of communications technologies, wrote these lines in 1984. But while acknowledging historical and technical tendencies, Sola Pool also understood that there was nothing deterministic about how technologies evolve. He knew that control over printing presses and microcomputers could become highly centralised, and he was aware of historical precedents—such as the grassroots telephone networks in the US at the turn of the twentieth century—where the deployment and management of telecommunication networks were emancipated from powerful corporations or States and underwent a process of radical decentralization (Starr 2004, p. 203). The politics of technology might be determined in the last instance by its political economy—how distributed the means for producing and using communications technologies are —but this actually depends on a combination of political, technical, economic, institutional or legal arrangements.

For all these contingencies, the baseline argument of Sola Pool and other acute political thinkers of media technologies is that the key to a free and more democratic society, then, comes down to a rather binary antagonism between decentralization/freedom and centralization/control in communications resources. Today, this antagonism plays a key role in understanding the politics of the Internet. We see it at play in the still-ongoing controversy regarding the massive information surveillance undertaken by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and its allied organizations. The privacy threats raised by centralized communications architectures is pushing a growing number of technology activists to respond by deploying decentralized and free software alternatives to the centralized online services known to collaborate with the NSA.

The same process has happened repeatedly in the Internet’s short history. The quest for more democratic communications resources has in fact driven the development of the Internet. Forty years ago, the rise of the personal computer and the creation of early-Internet protocols came out of a need to democratize computing technologies by taking them out of the hands of technocracy—decentralizing both the use of computers and the control of communication technologies. Later, in the 1980s, the free software movement emerged as an attempt to alleviate the threat that proprietary software vendors created for the ecosystem of innovation. Likewise, in the early 2000s, the control exerted by a few large media conglomerates over the circulation of copyrighted works sparked a counter-reaction on the part of activists, lawyers and librarians to establish an alternative, more participative and democratic regulatory framework through the creation of the ‘Creative Commons’ licenses in order to encourage the dissemination and reuse of digital works.

The history of communication technologies is populated with such conflicts between centralization and decentralization. While many of these technologies started or have existed at some point of their development as a decentralized structure, often replacing older technological paradigms following a Schumpeterian process of ‘creative-destruction’, nearly all progressively evolved into concentrated clusters of power as a result of industrialization and the reaffirmation of state sovereignty (Wu 2010). However, as the examples above suggest, when the oppressive potential of centralized technologies becomes clear and when the needs of citizens turn out to be systematically overlooked in existing power dynamics, decentralized initiatives may emerge as an attempt to disrupt the dominant hegemony and allow for the democratic re-appropriation of technology—a process that the philosopher Andrew Feenberg calls ‘subversive rationalization’ (Feenberg 1995).

In this paper, we focus on an ongoing—though too often neglected—phenomenon of decentralization in telecommunications networks: we show how the current revival of grassroots community networks can counterbalance the erosion of autonomy of Internet users that results from current telecom policies. As opposed to more larger and centralized network infrastructures owned and managed by powerful third parties (such as the state or large, highly capitalized Internet Service Providers (ISPs)), grassroots community networks are deployed by the community and for the community at the local or regional level. Rather than being driven by profits, they focus on the actual needs of the needs of its participants. They also experiment with novel models of distributed governance relying on cooperation and sharing among a community of peers (from a dozen to tens of thousands participants), and that are reminiscent of commons-based peer production schemes (Benkler 2006).

In our study, we focus on ‘Wireless Community Networks’ (WCN) (i.e those community networks providing connectivity through radio technologies, and Wi-Fi especially). While many community networks do not rely on radio technologies, those who do exhibit particular features that contrast more strongly from the dominant model found in traditional ISPs. In particular, to the extent that they rely solely and exclusively on free-to-use airwaves (or ‘spectrum commons’), WCN are to some extent more independent from incumbent ISPs than landline community networks who necessarily have to enter into a contractual relationship with the owners of the ‘last-mile’ landline network infrastructure.

We also take a somewhat narrow geographical and jurisdictional scope, focusing on European community networks (though we also illustrate our developments with examples from other regions). Since the early days of the Internet, Europe has been a fertile ground for the development of community networks, and many (though not all) of the groups we surveyed are based in Europe. Given our goal to contextualize WCN in the history of telecom policy, we have also used the telecom regulatory framework of the European Union (EU) as a background picture on which to situate WCN and from which to draw various legal and policy analysis.

The paper begins by sketching out a short history of telecoms policy, pointing to the prejudicial consequences of centralisation from a political perspective by showing how incumbent ISPs turn into network gatekeepers and foster their commercial interests by exerting greater control over users’ communications. Based on our fieldwork and qualitative interviews, our paper then moves on to describing WCN, presenting the main characteristics of these grassroots attempts at bringing about a ‘subversive rationalization’ of the last-mile network infrastructure. This second section outlines the motivations underlying the deployment of WCN, together with their technical features and innovative, commons-based models of governance, which all strongly contrast with the dominant, commercial model for Internet access provision. The third and last section assesses the impact of WCN on telecom regulation and the new power dynamics it entails, with regard to both the private sector and the public sector. The paper concludes that current telecoms regulation significantly overlooks the contribution of community networks to fostering political and socio-economic objectives associated with broadband policy and proposes a number of policy recommendations to overcome this gap.

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