Dictator-Proofing the Internet

Egyptian men charge cell phones in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Frederic Lafargue for Newsweek

When authorities in Egypt shut down Internet connections during last week's uprising, hackers around the world started scrambling to create a work-around. Before they could succeed, the blackout was lifted. But now people are worried that similar shutdowns might occur in countries like Jordan, Syria, and Yemen—and so hackers are working to set up alternative networks in those countries, just in case.

"In Egypt we were totally reactive. But we need to be preemptive, to provide tools to people before they go dark," says Dan Meredith, a 28-year-old software developer and self-described "technivist" (technology activist) who works for a group called the Open Technology Initiative, which is run by the New America Foundation, a left-leaning public-policy institute in Washington, D.C.

Meredith's group has developed a software program that can turn regular laptops into nodes on a "mesh network," all able to communicate with each other. The software can also run on the little Wi-Fi routers that you use to make a home network.

Last week Meredith was trading email with people who run five small radio stations in Amman, Jordan, and explaining how they can use relatively inexpensive gear to set up a mesh network to carry on communicating with each other if the Internet gets shut down. There's even a MacGyver-style do-it-yourself version that relies on copper cable and—no lie—coffee cans.

Best of all, if any single node on a mesh network can make a connection to the wider Internet, that node can share the connection with everyone. In Egpyt, even when ISPs shut down service, connections based on satellite dishes were still working. With that in mind, a group of "hacktivists" in the U.S. last week organized an online fundraiser to buy satellite Internet gear to ship to the Middle East. So far they've raised a bit more than $20,000 but are hoping to raise $100,000. Enough satellite dishes, combined with mesh networking, could prevent what happened in Egypt from ever happening again.