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E-Speech: The (Uncertain) Future of Free Expression

Posted on Oct 28, 2008
constitution in cyberspace
Composite: Flickr: oneras/free tibet

By Aram Sinnreich and Masha Zager

(Page 3)

This model is starting to catch on in other European countries, such as the Netherlands. In the U.S. there are about 60 municipal fiber networks—some states allow them, others don’t—and a few have succeeded in attracting multiple ISPs. None of them, however, put the customer in charge of connecting to the network, even though customer-controlled fiber helps attract ISPs due to the low investment costs and high degree of customer loyalty.

• A company called Copowi (short for Community Powered Internet) was launched in 2007 as the first strictly “net neutral” ISP. It now offers broadband services in 12 Western states over DSL lines wholesaled by Verizon, AT&T and Qwest. Copowi promises not to block, degrade or modify data or to discriminate for commercial advantage on the basis of source or destination—with exceptions for necessities such as spam prevention and, of course, law enforcement. It also provides encryption for e-mail and Web surfing, both to help users protect their privacy and to make it more difficult for network owners to implement non-neutral access.

After a year in business, Copowi has about 4,000 customers, according to founding partner George Matafonov. Eventually it would like to partner with more network owners or even to build its own networks, but first it needs to develop a larger subscriber base, which isn’t easy for a niche player.

• New “mesh” wireless networking gear—which lets people share Internet access something like BitTorrent lets them share files—has made it easy and inexpensive to create decentralized networks. Wireless mesh networks are now being used in locations as diverse as low-income housing projects, Indian reservations and South African schools. Citywide (or nearly citywide) mesh networks are being built in places like San Francisco and Urbana, Ill. Internet access becomes much less expensive because neighbors can share a commercial DSL connection in the same way that co-workers in an office do.


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However, mesh networks tend to be less decentralized in practice than they are in theory, and for technical reasons any really large mesh network seems to require a degree of structure and management. And even a decentralized mesh network is dependent on an ISP to communicate with others outside the neighborhood.

All of these efforts offer partial solutions to the problem of guaranteeing free expression over digital networks. Remember that the components of the problem we identified include unwarranted government intrusion; ISP self-dealing (net neutrality and the walled garden); and asymmetry. Looking at each of the solutions in turn:

Private condo fiber, if it ever exists, will solve the asymmetry problem nicely and give the customer some ammunition against ISP self-dealing. However, it will do nothing to combat government intrusion.

Public condo fiber (the Swedish solution) will face an uphill battle in the U.S., where phone and cable companies routinely delay municipal broadband projects with nuisance lawsuits and sometimes derail them altogether with legislation. However, when public fiber networks are built, they solve the asymmetry problem. And, if they attract competing service providers, they may help counter ISP self-dealing. Also, local governments may be able to stand up to unwarranted federal law-enforcement demands more effectively than private operators can, though the odds of this aren’t great.

Net neutral ISPs (such as Copowi) are a terrific solution to net neutrality and walled-garden problems, but they can’t address the asymmetry issue because they rely on existing network technology. This solution also fails to address governmental intrusions on privacy, because Copowi is legally obligated, just as AT&T, Comcast and the other large ISPs are, to cooperate with these intrusions.

Decentralized wireless mesh networks offer some hope of protecting freedom of communications within the network, if not between the network and the public Internet. As community wireless activist Sascha Meinrath writes, “What happens when a group of friends get together and buys a single line that is then shared among them? What happens when an apartment building buys a line and shares it? What happens when a community or neighborhood gets a line and shares it? … Who ‘owns’ an ownerless network? Because that (non)entity is required by [law] to provide surveillance capabilities on that network … [it] represents an unenforceable mandate.”

But wireless mesh networks are not well equipped to handle the other problems we’ve discussed. Because a wireless network can’t communicate with the Internet until it finds a wire, it is dependent on a single ISP. Ultimately it is limited by the ISP’s access speeds and network management policies. 

If wireless devices were ever to become powerful and prevalent enough for the mesh to replace much of the Internet as we know it, every mobile phone and laptop could become a voluntary peer in a global community of equals, without oversight or restrictions. Alternatively, if virtualization,  a technology that slices up computers into multiple “virtual” machines, is ever successfully applied to the hardware at the Internet POP (right now it’s busy transforming the corporate data center), we could conceivably all afford to be our own ISPs someday. But the limitations of current technology—as well as the opposition of ISPs and telcos, fighting to fend off what they see as a doomsday scenario—make these blissful utopias unlikely anytime soon.

In the meantime, keeping in mind our mantra of “e-speech,” we can continue to push federal regulators and access providers to support net neutrality and lower their garden walls, and we can continue to experiment with new models for community-owned and decentralized access. Most important, however, we have to remain aware of our civil liberties in the Digital Age, and to realize how easily—and invisibly—they can be removed.

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By Colorado Marketing Companies, August 1, 2011 at 6:06 pm Link to this comment

Well dramatized, and a good way to make clear the threats ahead, especially as our copyright laws are now being effectively written by copyright holding corporations. Few people take the time to consider the far-reaching implications of the steady chipping away of speech rights on the internet and I fear that by the time enough people do realize what has happened we will no longer have the rights to do anything about it.

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By M.Hostetler, June 28, 2011 at 9:45 pm Link to this comment

We just have to look at the big picture and be thankful that netizens are allowed to voice their views across so many platforms which can be instantaneously viewed by others from around the world. A country may impose curfews, restrict publications of certain editorials but as long as one still have access to the internet via these platforms, free expressions will continue to exist in our lives. One can even call this the final stand in Free Expression.

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By Mbadger, August 19, 2009 at 6:25 am Link to this comment

The creation of the internet and new age methods of usability such as mobile broadband and Iphones will ensure that freedom of speech and civil liberties will continue to exist. Just take a look at the recent iranian elections, mobile phones, twitter and internet access allowed people to connect to each other, expose harsh governmental tactics and show the world what’s really happening.

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By Folktruther, October 31, 2008 at 9:38 am Link to this comment

Free Expression is one of the major power delusions of American ideology.  It supposedly exists because it and Free Speeeh, etc is written down on legal pieces of paper somewhere. And is enshrined in the US Constitution in a paranthetical phrase.

Free Expression in the US is and has always been historically,  a political fraud.  The learned and mass media are largely owned or in other ways controlled by the American power structure which formulates the mainstream truth from the perspective of power rather than from perspective of the population.

Simple holistic truths about people and power are ideologically repressed in the mainstream media, largely being de-emphasized to the point of exclusion.  The American people are deluded by false media truths that are incompatible with the reality based truth.  This creates a mainstream consensus which ideological represses deviant truths, especially those which subvert power.

Freedom of communication is possible not only when one can TELL the truth, but when one can SELL the truth.  Telling the reality based truth about people and power is useless if no one is listening, or if they can’t hear.  Or if they do not possess the conceptual language to understand what is being said.

So under the Bushite political conterrevolution the US power system has devised Freedom Zones, away from the population, where protesters can tell their truths.  And Freedom Cages where protestors are comfined to enjoy Freedom of Expression.

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By George, October 30, 2008 at 9:09 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Congrats to the authors. This is one of the best explanations I’ve read on the issue of net neutrality and thank you for mentioning our service COPOWI.

When we first launched last year it became really clear that it would be almost impossible for us to break outside what we call “the believers”. These are people who clearly understand the problem and are prepared to act.

Just dealing with the term “net neutrality” was a nightmare from a marketing and promotional standpoint.

It was while we were developing new promotional ideas that the economic crisis struck. At first our reaction, like everyone, was utter shock and disbelief.

But then, on reflection, this was something we as a group have been discussing and predicting for some time. The global economic system, predicated on perpetual asset growth, was simply unsustainable.

A new economic, political and social system is being built right now and, as usual, we as the people, have no say.

It was then we realized why we have been fighting so hard to keep the Internet open and fair. We now have an opportunity to mobilize, on a global scale, to ensure what develops is not just for the elites, but for all of us.

Please read our free report: Preventing the Depression: Learn the truth about what is behind the economic crisis and why we cannot rely on politicians and business leaders to decide our future and the future of our children.

You can download the report from

We’re at prelaunch at the moment and all input would be most appreciated.

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By cyrena, October 30, 2008 at 5:24 pm Link to this comment

Tricia writes:
•  “A politician may well accept donations from corporations for aiding them in the achievement of their objectives, but the politician has no value if unelected. That is where the true power lies… in the hands of the elector - people like you”… “Distancing oneself from the political process is to invite anarchy, which inevitably places one in the wrong and encourages even more curtailment of civil rights.”

And, I thank her. This is exactly what I’ve been trying to articulate, successfully or not.

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By eileen fleming, October 29, 2008 at 6:46 am Link to this comment

The Industrial Military Media Security/Surveillance Complex:

Naomi Klein, in her book “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” wrote:

After the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, Israel’s economy was devastated, but then came 9/11, and “suddenly new profit vistas opened up for any company that claimed it could spot terrorists in crowds, seal borders from attack and extract confessions from closed-mouthed prisoners.

“Many of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs are using Israel’s status as a fortressed state, surrounded by furious enemies, as a kind of twenty-four-hour-a-day showroom—a living example of how to enjoy relative safety amid constant war.

“Israel now sends $1.2 billion in “defense” products to the United States—up dramatically from $270 million in 1999…

“Much of this growth has been in the so-called ‘homeland security sector. Before 9/11 homeland security barely existed as an industry. By the end of this year, Israeli exports in the sector will reach $1.2 billion—an increase of 20 percent.

“The key products and services are …precisely the tools and technologies Israel has used to lock in the occupied territories. Israel has learned to turn endless war into a brand asset, pitching its uprooting, occupation and containment of the Palestinian people as a half-century head start in the “global war on terror.”

In totalitarian regimes the people are afraid of the government.

In healthy democracies the government is afraid of the people.

We have no freedom or liberties, unless we seize them.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” UN Universal declaration of Human Rights, Article 19.

Eileen Fleming, Citizen Journalist and Founder WAWA:
Author “Keep Hope Alive” and “Memoirs of a Nice Irish American ‘Girl’s’ Life in Occupied Territory”
Producer “30 Minutes With Vanunu” and “13 Minutes with Vanunu”

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By Purple Girl, October 29, 2008 at 6:30 am Link to this comment

Why don’t we start from the beginning and hit these corps on Infringement Rights, Piracy and technological Espionage?
Frankly the Claim the Corps have a right to charge US for anything they have POACHED is ridiculous.They Stole His invention, His intented Gift to Humanity.
Granted the set up is not part of the ‘Gift’ so they can charge for their work to get you connected- physically…But should never been given the right to charge US to accesss it.
The survaillence for securtiy issue is even more outrageous.Whether would be ‘terrorist’ communicate over the iternet, the phone or face to face, they are determined to pull their attack off. Really, if you are hell bent on murdering someone, you’ll do it with a gun, a knife,poison,strangulation….The tool used is Mute, Irrelevant. Thus stopping Terrorism by cruising the internet is Useless! If we are not going to Hotwire all Individuals up to Survaillenace Tech to monitor their thoughts,words and actions the rest is Feudal.
The resent apprehension of the Neo Nazi’s proves this..They didn’t catch them from internet communications (only discovered afterwards) They were Caught Holding up a Gun Store!
We couldn’t also stop the Virginia Tech mass murderer, they only found out his plans after the fact….couldn’t read his mind.
The Reich claims an ‘increase in Chatter’ as evidence of a potential attack, unfortunately they can’t truely decipher what is being communicated, so they still have no way of Preventing It. If they type or say XYZ we have no idea if that is a code word or not.So their premise they are working off is innately flawed, no matter what they can’t read minds nor even real code words if related face to face to begin with.
Only dumbass with no real ability to pull off anything communicate via E-mail, not those who have spent years and funds on a Big ‘project’ would Willy nilly discuss it on the open Wire.
Shit the FBI couldn’t even catch the Teflon Don until his top hit man rolled, and they had they SOB Wired to the Hilt, And HE KNEW IT,so he adjusted his communications. ONLY through a face to face with a ‘trusted’ insider did they Catch him not using his code.
So to catch ‘Terrorist’ , Just like the Mafia, you must infiltrate and record Face to face ‘secure’ communications.And OUR Gov’t KNOWS this!They are instituting Big Brother under the Guise of natioanl security.
So while they monitor me because I want Cheney’s Head on aRecylced Paper plate, They are missing the guys at the coffee shop gearing up for their ‘Grand finale’.

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By 911truthdotorg, October 28, 2008 at 8:51 pm Link to this comment

Not only are we losing our free speech, but we’re going to have to hand over our VERY personal information to the Gestapo starting in Jan if we want to fly. And if you don’t hand it over, they’ll PUT you on the no-fly list! This is OUTRAGEOUS! This country is DONE!

-DHS to Take Over Airline Passenger Screening

Starting in January, the responsibility for checking airline travelers’names against the passenger watch and no-fly lists will pass from the airlines to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  Passengers will be required to provide their full names, birthdates and genders to board commercial aircraft.  The additional required information is intended to reduce significantly the number of false positives, or people whose travel is “wrongly” delayed or prevented.  The no-fly list has fewer than 2,500 names on it; just 10 percent of those are US citizens.  The selectee list, which identifies people who are subject to additional questioning, contains fewer than 16,000 names, and less than half are US citizens.  The shift comes with the release of the Secure Flight Final Rule.

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By trisha, October 28, 2008 at 8:46 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why is it becoming the normal practice to come up with a workaround when government and corporations fail us? To follow this philosophy is to admit defeat; to decide that our representatives and form of government have become the enemy. A politician may well accept donations from corporations for aiding them in the achievement of their objectives, but the politician has no value if unelected. That is where the true power lies… in the hands of the elector - people like you… The recent revolt over the bailout plan was effective, for a while, but poorly organized. Instead of telling people how to get around the mischief of the government, try telling them how to find out more, explain the legislation (when and if it is planned) and what they can legally do to thwart it.

Distancing oneself from the political process is to invite anarchy, which inevitably places one in the wrong and encourages even more curtailment of civil rights.

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By Big B, October 28, 2008 at 5:40 pm Link to this comment

As a former “comcaster” I can assure people that comcast’s stand against net neutrality is less sinister in nature, and more profit related. Since comcast doesn’t posses the cash cow that is a wireless network(ala verizon and AT&T;) they are forced to try and create new revenue streams through their existing service platforms, like preventing other ISP’s from their systems, and charging downloaders through the nose for “extra” data.

The other more recent problem with the information superhighway infrastructure is that, during tough economic times, major system upgrades, be they fiber or WIFI, may get back burnered because of costs alone.(Verizon and AT&T;have deep pockets, but can they afford 15-20 billion dollar system upgrades during a recession?) They may not feel completion of these projects that urgently anyway because competition from the large Cable operators is limited because of their aging coaxial/fiber hybrid systems that depend primarily on digital compression to make up for a lack of bandwidth. And with no wireless revenue stream, they will be hard pressed to compete with the baby bells anyway, because they don’t have their deep pockets or credit ratings.

As for net security, well, hopefully no one out there in TV land is under the impression that the feds have not been creating a huge data base from internet activity going all the way back to the 90’s.

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By libertarian, October 28, 2008 at 5:09 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A good, detailed, important article on a subject of which most are unaware. My two simplistic remedies are : term-limits for Congress (no agenda snowballing) and the purchase of a monthly SSH/SSL offshore server account which will protect both your privacy and anonymity.

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By TheRealFish, October 28, 2008 at 3:09 pm Link to this comment

Though listed as a writer of science fiction, for those who haven’t been exposed to him before, I’d like to introduce Cory Doctorow.

More than just an author, he is an expert in the world of Internet security and is a strongly in favor of keeping the Internet lanes free.

He wrote a recent book, titled “Little Brother” that he allows folks to download *for free*—having to do with issues of loss of privacy and freedoms in today’s world. The setting of the story is something like day-after-tomorrow.

You can get it here (a must read):

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