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Oakland's Sudo Mesh Looks to Counter Censorship and Digital Divide With a Mesh Network

BY Ben Valentine | Monday, July 21 2014

Sudo Mesh members mount a rooftop node as part of a mesh network project in Oakland (Credit: Matt Senate)

In Oakland, a city with deep roots in radical activism and a growing tech scene at odds with the hyper-capital-driven Silicon Valley, those at the Sudo Room hackerspace believe that the solution to a wide range of problems, from censorship to the digital divide, is a mesh net, a type of decentralized network that is resilient to censorship and disruption and can also bring connectivity to poor communities.

Sudo Room and one of their working groups, Sudo Mesh, is currently building a mesh network called the People’s Open Network. Mesh networks are a type of decentralized network connected by nodes, which can be wifi routers or other transmitters, that share the connection, thereby creating a communication network far more resilient to natural disasters and censorship because there is no single cut-off point.

In this way, the People’s Open Network is a web within a web: it includes all the benefits of the global internet but is a community-run, more robust, and free network. (For a simple and clear visualization of a mesh net, watch the first 40 seconds of this video.)

Currently, the Sudo Mesh team is still very much in the testing phase, ensuring that the hardware and software will run smoothly before doing serious community outreach. While 74 sites in the Bay Area have offered to host a node, currently there are only two active nodes, both run by Sudo Mesh volunteers. As Pete Forsyth, Principal at Wiki Strategies and Sudo Mesh volunteer told me over the phone, “we want to get to a technical place where anyone can join easily, instead of doing outreach first and disappointing people.”

When the mesh network is publicly launched, the team will encourage adopters to donate a node for someone who can’t afford one. When this happens they will find a home in an under-connected area that would like a free node installed. This allows the technically proficient and often wealthier early adopters to assist with spreading the network in an inclusive way. The team eventually wants to offer free classes and workshops to anyone hosting a node, to help them understand, maintain, and share their connection.

The Sudo Mesh team has reached out to various local community organizations to share their project and garner more support and interest in volunteering. Several Sudo Mesh volunteers have met with the Internet Archive, Media Alliance, Open Oakland, and San Francisco State University. The Media Alliance provided fiscal sponsorship to Sudo Mesh for a grant application and continues to be interested in the work.

On top of testing, the Sudo Mesh team is really looking for a pilot neighborhood that would benefit from free access. Optimally, the neighborhood needs to be small and dense and have a tight cluster of interested volunteers. This pilot neighborhood would allow the Sudo Mesh team to work closely with early adopters to test the project, work out kinks and prove the mesh net’s value.

I spoke over email with three Oakland residents who volunteered to host a node when the project publicly launches. All were passionate about helping reduce a perceived lack of connectivity in their neighborhood. I asked, but is there a real need for better “last mile” connectivity in Oakland? Does local poverty really translate into a lack of connectivity, and is that a problem? To all three questions the answer was yes.

While the city of Oakland has done work to offer free wireless at city buildings and libraries, connecting households has remained off their agenda. While anyone in Oakland could connect to the internet, money remains a barrier. Free Press found that while 80% of the Bay Area had broadband, neighborhoods in Oakland and Richmond are below the state and national average. The United States Census Bureau found that 32% of Oakland residents aren't connected to the internet at all and another 9.5% were only connected through a device like a smart phone.

Wanting to understand what this means, I spoke on the phone with Paul Goodman, the Telecommunications Legal Counsel for the Greenlining Institute, a local organization working toward racial and economic justice. Goodman believes the mesh work is one means of addressing the digital divide.

“We’ve reached a point where broadband is no longer a convenience but a necessity. You can’t get ahead in society, or pull even, without broadband access,” he said. Scheduling doctor appointments, doing homework, applying for jobs, and so much more is all moving online, making it difficult for low-income families to keep up. Goodman mentioned that Oakland residents could only apply for section 8 housing online.

I also spoke with Tracy Rosenberg the Executive Director Media Alliance, Sudo Mesh’s fiscal sponsor, and a non-profit working for a just, accountable, and diverse media in the Bay Area. Rosenberg was aware of the project because of Media Alliance’s relationship to 510pen, a mesh net project which proceeded and inspired the People's Open Network that was started by one of their former employees, Mark Burdett.

Rosenberg focused on the value a home connection can bring to students, such as research and homework, which many students in poor neighborhoods don’t have access to. While it’s true free access is available at the local libraries now, Rosenberg said that for “those most impacted by the digital divide, it is the home access that potentially provides much of the economic and social benefits.”

Sudo Mesh also plans to use the mesh net to counter censorship, which protestors in Oakland have experienced before, as well as network disruptions due to natural disasters.

In 2011 a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer shot and killed resident Charles Blair Hill who was armed with a knife. Tensions were high because the community was still sore over the shooting of an unarmed and handcuffed resident, Oscar Grant, by a BART officer two years prior. But before a planned BART protest on August 11, 2011, BART turned off all wireless services inside the stations.

Michael Risher, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California stated at the time, “All over the world, people are using mobile devices to protest oppressive regimes, and governments are shutting down cell phone towers and the Internet to stop them. It's outrageous that in San Francisco, BART is doing the same thing.”

Jenny Ryan, a cyberanthropologist, free culture advocate, and one of the original members of the Sudo Mesh team, notes the East Bay has long nourished a particularly radical streak, largely at odds with authority. She believes that in Oakland, “building a community-owned telecommunications infrastructure is one piece to the larger picture of building autonomy and people power.”

Ryan and Matt Senate, one of Sudo Room’s 23 co-founders, note, however, that privacy issues remain unresolved on the People’s Open Network. The surveillance tools available to governments and others eavesdroppers also apply to mesh nets. Although Senate and Ryan hope this can change in the future, the People’s Open Network is currently no more or less susceptible to surveillance than the internet itself.

But in keeping with cypherpunk lineage of the East Bay, Sudo Room hosts crypto-parties to teach anyone interested in how to use privacy tools like Tor or PGP. With open source software and community involvement, the mesh net has greater opportunities to become more secure.

On a purely practical level, mesh networks can be cheaper and better at withstanding disconnection as a result of natural disasters, ideal for the Bay Area, which is situated atop several active fault lines and has been crippled by earthquakes that in the past led to a breakdown in telecommunications.

Having closely studied the mesh net in Red Hook and its notable resilience in the face of Hurricane Sandy, Ryan and Senate believe that when the next big earthquake hits the Bay Area, the People’s Open Network could become an invaluable lifeline for residents.

In sharp contrast to the centralized and privatized internet that we have today, one that can be easily shut off or that is too expensive for too many, Senate believes Sudo Mesh is, “building and growing a network run by and for the community." Senate explains that Occupy Oakland offered a new style of governance and that the People’s Open Network is building that community ethos into the telecommunications infrastructure.

"We have to start thinking about this infrastructure as being ours," says Senate, "and make it so it actually reflects the interests of the people, everywhere. If it's not being used that way it's up to us to change it.”

Correction (July 25, 2014): The original article stated that Sudo Mesh worked with Laney College. They did not collaborate with Laney College but independently fixed a node to the school's building after receiving permission from a solar power company that uses the roof space.

Ben Valentine is an independent writer who studies how tech, creativity and politics intersect. Ben works with The Civic Beat and has written or spoken for SXSW, Salon, Hyperallergic, YBCA and VICE to name a few. Ben also helped organize the World's First Tumblr Symposium with Hyperallergic, is Internet Archive’s Tumblr residency, and was formerly a Tumblr Fellow for the 2014 Personal Democracy Forum.