Kill My ISP
We trust Internet Service Providers with some of the most intimate details of our lives, but why should we? Around the world, people are repurposing inexpensive routers and antennas to build their own, community-controlled internet.
Every morning when I go online to access my favorite counter culture publications and email my boss, my computer requests and receives data from web servers far away from my house, and this internet traffic whizzes through cables owned by strangers. I rely on these strangers to relay my page requests to the proper destination without alteration. I also trust them to treat me fairly and not slow down my traffic if I choose to stream music from Bandcamp.com instead of Apple Music, for example.
The strangers that own and control most internet traffic are Internet Service Providers (ISPs). When using the internet, I trust them with some of the most intimate details of my life, but why should I?
Over the past 40 years, the internet has gradually passed from being controlled by scientists, hobbyists, and defense department contractors to multinational corporations like AT&T and Verizon. Decades before the invention of the World Wide Web in 1989, the US Department of Defense and later the National Science Foundation funded early development projects to connect computers within a network. The technical and infrastructural groundwork of the internet was designed by scientists who used the network to link their universities and rapidly share research. In other words, the people who were using the early internet the most were also writing its rules and protocols, giving the users a strong sense of network ownership and autonomy. This dwindled rapidly in the 1990s when the US government sold off infrastructure and technology funded by tax dollars to a handful of private companies, which facilitated both the popularization and privatization of the internet.
The internet then (and now) relied on a method of transmitting information called “packet switching.” Messages are broken up into packets that each have the destination’s numerical address. The packets are sent from one node in the network to the next, moving closer to the destination until it is finally reached. Packet switching differed from the circuit switching of telephones because instead of having a central point where actual people (and later machines) would create a dedicated route connecting the phone lines of two people, you could have a distributed network where different portions of your message could take different paths across the network and still reach the same destination in one piece. If I was at Stanford in the 70s and wanted to send a message to someone at MIT, my message would be broken up into digital packets each with MIT’s address on it and passed along the fastest route to MIT. We can imagine the packets would go from Stanford to University of Southern California to the University of Utah and perhaps a few other points until they made their way to MIT. If that path was congested with other traffic, some portion of my message may be sent via another route, say from UCLA to Illinois to Rutgers. No matter the route they took, once all my packets reached MIT, the recipient’s computer would be able to reassemble them into the complete message. This required trust of other members of the network to properly relay packets towards their destination and to refrain from reading messages not addressed to them.