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network infrastructure as commons

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Community Networks target a more democratic and socially aware internet

Corporations control the internet for private profit, but at great social cost. There’s another way.

Digital Economy

Today’s internet bears little resemblance to its original concept, which was to foster free exchange of information. Now, corporate interests oppose that purpose. Large telecommunications companies control the fundamental platform. Even larger corporations control most of the main service applications. In addition, the internet has absorbed many classic media, such as newspapers and telephone networks, so that now virtually all communication is both internet based and corporatised. These opaque companies thus have enormous power, including the ability to spy on users. Despite the internet’s problems, not having access is even worse. That amounts to social disadvantage and exclusion. Many see these developments as social negatives, not least because they violate the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights concerning freedom of communication. The EU-funded netCommons project fostered an alternative concept called Community Networks (CNs). These are bottom-up initiatives intended to build and operate local, collective infrastructures for internet access. The project’s name derives from the economic concept of commons; the group was the first to apply it to a technological domain. netCommons provided CNs with software support, plus influenced European laws and policies to favour these networks. An unfair Internet Project researchers determined that the internet, as presently organised, is driving society towards a more centralised and less democratic structure. “To make an analogy,” says Professor Renato Lo Cigno, project coordinator, “the internet today is like a transportation system that not everyone can use, and where the makes and models of cars using the roads are decided locally by some private controlling entity.” Aside from detailing the internet’s problems, project researchers concluded that they can be solved, and that a more democratic and socially aware internet is possible. Such an organisational structure would be sustainable, supporting a circular rather than exploitative economy. New tools and policies The project’s achievements included the development of software tools for CNs. One automatically monitors networks using a new, decentralised approach. The remaining three tools are intended for personal users. One of those, created in a previous EU project called CLOUDY, provides cloud storage services, but in a private way, and much more cheaply than commercial options. The next tool was also created in a previous EU-funded project (PeerStreamer), and allows peer-to-peer video streaming in a cheap and distributed way compatible with CN philosophies. Lastly, the team developed an Android app for one particular CN, the Sarantaporo smart-farming community in Greece. Another of netCommons’ major results was change to European Electronic Communications Code policy. The project, in partnership with other advocacy groups, proposed dozens of modifications to provisions in EU legislation that disadvantage CNs. The enacted changes in part reserve certain radio bands for community-based WiFi networks, while also forcing large operators to share optical fibre networks and access to internet exchanges. Most importantly, the changes protect net neutrality, without which service providers can block new services and prevent innovation. “Laws and regulations should benefit people, and not corporations or oligopolies,” states Prof. Lo Cigno. “The internet can be the spearhead to help prevent society moving towards oligarchy.” netCommons efforts, by aiding the emergence of a healthier culture of internet management, may also catalyse social change in that direction.


netCommons, internet, communication, internet management, Community Networks, software, media, European Electronic Communications Code, net neutrality

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