Computer networks proved their organizing power during the recent uprisings in the Middle East, in which Facebook pages amplified street protests that toppled dictators. But those same networks showed their weaknesses as well, such as when the Egyptian government walled off most of its citizens from the Internet in an attempt to silence protesters.
That has led scholars and activists increasingly to consider the Internet's wiring as a disputed political frontier.
For example, one weekend each month, a small group of computer programmers gathers at a residence here to build a homemade Internet—named Project Byzantium—that could go online if parts of the current global Internet becomes blocked by a repressive government.
Using an approach called a "mesh network," the system would set up an informal wireless network connecting users with other nearby computers, which in turn would pass along the signals. The mesh network could tie back into the Internet if one of the users found a way to plug into an unblocked route. The developers recently tested an early version of their software at George Washington University (though without the official involvement of campus officials).
The leader of the effort, who goes by the alias TheDoctor but who would not give his name, out of concern that his employer would object to the project, says he fears that some day repressive measures could be put into place in the United States.
He is not the only one with such apprehensions. Next month TheDoctor will join hundreds of like-minded high-tech activists and entrepreneurs in New York at an unusual conference called the Contact Summit. One of the participants is Eben Moglen, a professor at Columbia Law School who has built an encryption device and worries about a recent attempt by Wisconsin politicians to search a professor's e-mail. The summit's goal is not just to talk about the projects, but also to connect with potential financial backers, recruit programmers, and brainstorm approaches to building parallel Internets and social networks.
The meeting is a sign of the growing momentum of what is called the "free-network movement," whose leaders are pushing to rewire online networks to make it harder for a government or corporation to exert what some worry is undue control or surveillance. Another key concern is that the Internet has not lived up to its social potential to connect people, and instead has become overrun by marketing and promotion efforts by large corporations.
At the heart of the movement is the idea that seemingly mundane technical specifications of Internet routers and social-networking software platforms have powerful political implications. In virtual realms, programmers essentially set the laws of physics, or at least the rules of interaction, for their cyberspaces. If it sometimes seems that media pundits treat Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg or Apple's Steve Jobs as gods, that's because in a sense they are—sitting on Mount Olympus with the power to hurl digital thunderbolts with a worldwide impact on people.
Instead of just complaining, many of those heading to New York next month believe they can build alternatives that reduce the power of those virtual deities and give more control to mere mortals.
I was surprised by the number of homegrown Internet projects described on the Contact Summit's Web site—though most of them are not yet operational, and some may never be. Among the approaches: an alternative to Facebook that promises better privacy control; a device that automatically scrambles e-mail and Web traffic so that only people authorized by the user can read them; and various mesh-network efforts that can essentially create an "Internet in a suitcase" to set up wherever unfettered Internet access is needed.
Whether you see these techies as visionaries or paranoids, they highlight the extent to which networks now shape nations.
"Anyone who cares about human rights anywhere should dedicate themselves to building these systems," is how Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, put it when I asked him about the trend.
One organizer of the Contact Summit, Douglas Rushkoff, compares the disruptive power of the Internet to the impact of bazaars in the Middle Ages.
In his latest book, Program or Be Programmed (OR Books), he argues that the earliest bazaars helped transform feudal society by allowing vigorous information sharing—a low-tech peer-to-peer network. "Everyone was speaking with everybody else, and about all sorts of things and ideas," he writes. "All this information exchange allowed people to improve on themselves and their situations," allowing craftsmen to form guilds and share techniques. "As the former peasants rose to become a middle class of merchants and craftspeople, they were no longer dependent on feudal lords for food and protection."
The Internet has created a bazaar 2.0, says Mr. Rushkoff, accelerating information exchange and giving people the power to organize in new ways.
At least so far. Mr. Rushkoff argues that companies and governments are gaining too much power, in ways that could limit communication in the future. Facebook, for instance, is a centralized system that forces users to run communications through its servers—and, he observes, its main goal is to make money by analyzing data about users and sharing that information with advertisers.
"The Internet that we know and love is not up to the task of being both a fully commercial network and a people's infrastructure," Mr. Rushkoff told me. "The Net is not a marketing opportunity—it's something much bigger than that."
One idea: Create two parallel Internets, one run and optimized for banks and entertainment giants (like Netflix, whose streaming movies take up more and more of total bandwidth), and the other for academic research, civic discourse, and independent artists. He points to Internet2, a high-speed research network run by universities, as a step in the right direction. But that network is available only on select campuses.
Perhaps other approaches will emerge that are designed to encourage the kind of peer-to-peer trading of information that Mr. Rushkoff prefers. To encourage that, the Contact Summit will organize a bazaar of its own, where participants can seek supporters for their projects. The organizers plan to award start-up grants to a few projects on the basis of a competition. "This is a conference of doers and people looking for counsel and collaborators," Mr. Rushkoff explains.
He acknowledges that the crowd he is gathering can be hard to herd, though: "There are people who are afraid to come to Contact because they think they're going to be hacked or tracked or injected with something. There are a lot of loonies out there."
One developer who is eager to go the summit is Mr. Moglen, the law professor. He's leading the development of a device called the Freedom Box, and though it doesn't look like much—a gadget the size of a paperback book—he believes that it would be able to help Internet users preserve their privacy.
The concept: It's a personal server, which automatically scrambles digital data to make them harder for unauthorized people to intercept. The idea is to create a personal "cloud," or online storage space, for data before the information is sent to standard e-mail or Web services.
Mr. Moglen and a team of programmers are developing the software under the auspices of the FreedomBox Foundation, a nonprofit organization, and plan to release it under an open license that lets anyone use and modify it. The initial Freedom Box code is expected to hit the Web in the next week or two, although it is more of a framework for developers at this point and lacks most of the planned features.
For Mr. Moglen the work is part of a longtime mission. The Chronicle profiled him several years ago, soon after he founded the Software Freedom Law Center and published what he called The dotCommunist Manifesto.
In the manifesto, he argues that all software should be developed by groups under free licenses rather than by companies out to make profit. Critics have called his approach extreme and unworkable, but in some areas open-source software has gained ground in recent years.
"The Net we have is increasingly monitored, measured, and surveilled everywhere by everybody all the time, or at least by somebody who's doing it for somebody else and would answer a subpoena if they got one," he argued at a conference this year. "Our Net has been turned against us."
In an interview, Mr. Moglen emphasizes that professors in particular should send their communications through his device. The reason? "Two words: William Cronon."
Mr. Cronon, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, was recently the subject of an unusual public-records request by a political group. The Republican Party of Wisconsin asked the university to turn over a batch of e-mail messages by the professor containing certain keywords, as The Chronicle reported, after he wrote a blog post examining how conservative groups had helped craft controversial legislation, including the 2011 measure to strip Wisconsin public employees of collective-bargaining rights.
Mr. Cronon believes that Republican officials were hunting for evidence that he had violated state law by using his state-university account for political speech, which he denies doing. He says other professors might be discouraged from speaking publicly on controversial issues, for fear their e-mail messages, too, might be sought by critics.
Some free-Internet projects have been under development for some time, and many professors and business leaders have long encrypted their e-mail messages. But there is a new emphasis on making such systems easier to use and bringing them to a wider audience, says Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation.
"We're trying to move them out of the geekosphere and get them into mainstream use," he told me.
And there's evidence of that happening. This summer the foundation received a $2-million grant from the State Department to build its own mesh network, which could be set up by dissidents abroad to avoid censors. That's the system being called an "Internet in a suitcase."
Proponents of mesh projects like Byzantium say they can provide a different kind of Internet freedom—a connection that comes at no cost. Potentially, mesh networks could be set up and shared as free community networks.
For activists like TheDoctor, that kind of freedom can give low-income users a chance to access information that could help improve their lives.
"If a single Byzantium node gave a single person access to MIT's open courseware," he says, "the whole project would be a success."