Friday, January 11, 2008

Net Nanny State Could Prompt Free Community Wireless Networks

Some thoughts have been swimming around in my head for the last week or so, and it turns out 4am on an unusually hot summer night is the perfect time to complain. Senator Conroy's ISP-level internet filtering intentions have been giving me grief, and by grief I mean the Kubler-Ross cycle kind; shock, anger, acceptance. The reaction went something along the lines of "What? WHAT? No, he can't be serious. Really? Nooo. Really? Hold on a second...".

I'm against the proposal (in its current form) for several reasons: I think supervision of kids media consumption and interaction is a parental responsibility rather than governmental; if ISPs are going to be forced to provide a filtered service, it should be opt-in rather than opt-out (I don't like the idea of getting on a list that could be exploited for other purposes later); there's been no mention about the filtering criteria, how 'net resources get on the naughty list or how to get on the nice list, nor who makes and maintain said lists; and I don't think it can actually be implemented properly without putting more bottlenecks into an already slow network.

But with challenge comes adaptation. This proposal could be a shot in the arm for the small number of free community wireless networks that are in their infancy in Australia. Don't just opt-out of ISP-level filtering, opt-out of ISPs all together. Not that most would go so far, but some could.

The tech is called wireless mesh networking. There're a few different ways it can be implemented through hardware and software, but the devices that have prompted this generation of Sydney and Canberra networks (others have come before) are called Meraki Minis. They're little wifi repeaters that talk to each other to create a wireless network. If one is plugged into a 'net connection, it becomes a gateway, and people can access the 'net by connecting to that cloud of repeaters. City-wide networks are created when lots of people buy and install the repeaters, and the altruistic types make theirs gateways and share some of their 'net bandwith with the cloud.

I think these are a good idea. Wifi is in a bunch of devices now (laptops, phones and cheap subnotebooks like the OLPC/XO and my EEEpc) and low cost community networks could be the way to maximise coverage and access to basic 'net services. Sure, multiplayer gaming and streaming media might be too bandwith hungry to be go-ers on infant networks, but they'd be fine for web, email and Skype/VOIP/IM applications.

I call them low cost community networks rather than free networks because while "free wireless" will grab peoples attention and get a lot of people wanting to use it, I think it will create an expectation that someone else will build it, and I think advocates of these projects should be encouraging participation through building the network as well as usage. The meraki repeater should be the price of admittance, at least initially. I like FON's give-to-get model in this respect. [via]

These projects are still way back in early adopter land. I'm generally happy to play in this land, if the price is right, but I think there are some concerns project advocates need to address before there'll be wider uptake: up-front cost, on-going bandwith cost, security and legal liability. Sure, early adopters are going to be geeks who can do their own research, but growth will require participation by those who come after, and they'll have questions. These should be addressed FAQ-style right up front on the projects sites (Sydney's site almost gets there on the About page). It could go something like this:

How much up front?

Merakis cost US$50 each, plus delivery. (Even though you're ordering from the States you can get them with Aussie powerplugs)

On-going costs?

Depends how involved you want to be. If it's just a repeater, you'll only pay to power it. As a gateway, you'll obviously be donating some of the bandwith you pay for now too. How much will depend on how much you allow [Can this be done?] and how many people the network will route to your gateway (the idea of the mesh network is that traffic is routed to the nearest gateway) [I think].

What about security? Will people be able to get to my data?

The meraki is only an access point. People connecting to it can't access your shared folders, printers etc etc.
[BIG DISCLAIMER - I just made that up. Someone with a lot more network security knowledge than I really needs to explain the meraki security model]

What if someone tries to pirate stuff/share pirated stuff/access nasty stuff through my meraki? Will I get in legal trouble?

If your meraki is just a repeater, probably not. If it's the gateway, your equipment could get tied up in an investigation, but if you can show that activity happened via the network rather than on your personal machines, you can argue like the ISPs/telcos do that you're not liable for stuff transmitted by the network.
[ANOTHER BIG DISCLAIMER - I just made that up. I am not a lawyer. Projects should get legal advice on that one.]

I have a potential solution for the legal liability issue; encourage regular people to set up their merakis as repeaters (gateways if they don't secure their wireless routers anyway), and encourage businesses that provide free wifi (cafes etc) to install merakis and configure them as gateways. If they're providing free wifi now, I'm assuming they're accepting the legal liability risks and/or have some level of traffic auditing to cover their asses.

Now if you can combine the meraki wireless mesh with Whisher, I think you're on your way to putting the community interaction into community wireless networking too. It'd be a new way to meet / get in touch with your neighbours.

Happy days. Please consider. Those interested in getting involved should check out the Facebook groups for the Sydney and Canberra networks.

UPDATE - Free Sydney Wireless reports: Bruce Schneier, security guru, talks about his own open wifi network at home in this Wired article.

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Posted by Dean @ 1/11/2008 04:20:00 am

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Hi there,

I was just logging into WordPress to write up an article on Meraki mesh network security when I noticed this article as an Incoming Link from the Dashboard; it's a valid point that many people have raised; obviously enabling any sort of access from a general security point of view is going to increase the risk ... but let's not kid ourselves, most of our computer systems have so many security risks and holes that this concern over sharing your Internet access using Merakis is a non-issue.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous @ Saturday, January 12, 2008 12:58:00 pm #

I've just posted the article:


Posted by Anonymous Anonymous @ Saturday, January 12, 2008 1:35:00 pm #

Funny, a friend introduced my to Meraki only the other day. I had no idea they were so well-known ...

Not sure I'd have the guts to try it out just yet, not until the early adopters have found all the problems with it. You can do that :P

Good to see you're still alive & 'blogging, Dean.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous @ Thursday, January 17, 2008 11:34:00 pm #
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