Discrete Local Networks vs. the Internet
Community intranets disconnected from the Internet may be considered discrete networks, which is advantageous to communities for many reasons. Before considering how these independent, discrete networks may be used to benefit communities, it is important to consider the disadvantages of the Internet and a lack of general network access. As Choney (2013) recalls, “nearly two years ago, the United Nations said that access to the Internet should be considered a basic human right.” Despite this bold declaration by the UN, many governments and Internet providers beg to differ. With many communities being denied high speed Internet access due to the lack of service providers in their area and the inability to pay for expensive broadband services and related devices, community members adversely affected by the digital and economic divide are even more at risk of missing out on vital information and communication technologies.
As a solution to Internet woes, low-cost local file-sharing devices supply portable networks and use open source software. While many people depend on the Internet for various reasons, which can be a serious liability in itself, it can also be unreliable. Large capacity file-sharing websites such as Google Drive may suddenly become compromised. Vulnerabilities to hackers have been and will continue to be major disadvantages, especially as hackers tend to target widely used applications. In addition, infrastructure may become damaged by natural disasters.
The Internet as a Means of Oppression
More serious reasons to utilize exclusive networks include that Internet users may be taken advantage of by corporate monopolies and feel threatened by hostile governments who monitor their usage and impose censorship either directly or indirectly. In Egypt, for instance, President Hosni Mubarak’s regime regularly arrested bloggers who opposed him and policemen beat a human rights activist, Khaled Mohammed Said, to death after he posted a video about police corruption online (Countries, 2011). Online networks such as Facebook are also becoming more of a concern as users lack ownership to their own messages and digital artifacts.
Surveillance and control does not contribute to technological citizenship, or more powerful roles in relation to technology, as it only oppresses individuals and groups (Eubanks, 2011). Other disadvantages of the Internet include the multitude of pop-up ads and useless websites and the inability to tailor some applications to meet the needs of individuals or whole communities. In such circumstances as these, local networks provided by self-contained file-sharing devices independent of the Internet prove to be the better choice.
Lack of Network Access as a Means of Oppression
The ability to disseminate confidential information and communicate with groups may benefit various stakeholders. Public information from the Internet may be reproduced and spread over the local networks, allowing more people to participate in politics and receive news from credible sources. In a more profound context, use of local discrete networks is equivalent to exercising democracy, including rights such as free speech and the right to privacy. In Egypt, users of such networks would gain back their freedom with the ability to express social and political ideas without the watchful eyes of the government. The case is much worse in North Korea where citizens do not even have independent radio or television or Internet access on their cell phones and where it has been reported that there is a “‘sneakernet’—that is, people handing off data to one another via physical media, rather than across a network” (Choney, 2013).
Another country negatively affected by a lack of internet access is Cuba, which is said to have the most tightly controlled Internet and where government officials with Internet access sell or rent their usernames and passwords to Cubans through the black market (Internet, 2011; Voeux & Pain, 2006). As Alvarez (2013) states, “Today, about 16 percent of Cubans are “online,” although they generally only have access to email and the intranet through work, school, or, according to Cuban officials, via government-operated computer clubs.” In a place such as Cuba where there is a lack of general network access coupled with slow connections and outdated technology, discrete network devices would be even more useful (Alvarez, 2013).
Discrete networks are empowering to individuals and groups and mesh networking would only increase the capacity of its abilities. Such networks may also aid communities in combating crime. For instance, if a mass auto theft or a worse crime has taken place at an apartment complex, the residents with or without Internet connections may be able to come together to more easily share information about the occurrences, including videos, possible suspects, and warnings. In other emergency situations such as natural disasters, large-scale areas may be without electricity and Internet access, yet emergency response information could still be disseminated quickly using independent networks (Griffey, 2012).
Discrete networks are also able to contribute to digital inclusion initiatives, especially digital literacy. Devices such as the LibraryBox may distribute e-books, medical information, educational resources, and other digitized information as well as be used for gaming (Griffey, 2012). A range of programming could also be offered using the devices, which could especially benefit those of lesser-developed countries and isolated areas of the world. Users could become content creators, using compatible open source applications or developing their own for various purposes. In addition to being used as educational tools, exclusive network devices allow users to create their own home security systems and robots, measure air quality, automate food production, and much more (Normal, 2013).
The value of discrete local network technology exceeds its financial costs. For this reason alone, it should be incorporated into local strategic planning as a means of widespread access, digital literacy, and useful content and services—the three main aspects of digital inclusion (Keyes & Crandall, 2009). The technology is transforming ways to access and share information, thus benefiting active participation within communities as well. Besides contributing to technological citizenship, use of such devices may strengthen communities, building invaluable social capital (Eubanks, 2011). Most importantly, discrete local network devices have implications for advocacy and activism.
Alvarez, A. (2013, January 23).Cuba gets high-speed internet, kind of. ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/News/cuba-high-speed-internet/story?id=18286118#.UYOqcpWRqFI
Choney, S. (2013, March 29). North Korea’s internet? What internet? For most, online access doesn’t exist. NBC News. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/technology/technolog/north-koreas-internet-what-internet-most-online-access-doesnt-exist-1C9143426
Countries under surveillance: Egypt. (March 2011). Retrieved April 26, 2013 from http://en.rsf.org/surveillance-egypt,39740.html
Eubanks, V. (2011). Digital dead end: Fighting for social justice in the information age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Griffey, J. (2012). LibraryBox Use Cases. Retrieved from http://jasongriffey.net/librarybox/use_cases.html
Internet enemies: Cuba. (2011). Reporters Without Borders. Retrieved from http://en.rsf.org/internet-enemie-cuba,39756.html
Keyes, D. & Crandall, M. (2009). Digital inclusion: Context & looking at recent data. Retrieved from http://impactsurvey.org/documents/CCN_pnw-digital-inclusion-summit.pdf.
Normal, N. (2013, April 14). 47 raspberry pi projects to inspire your next build. Make. Retrieved from http://blog.makezine.com/2013/04/14/47-raspberry-pi-projects-to-inspire-your-next-build/
Voeux, C., & Pain, J. (2006). Going online in Cuba: Internet under surveillance. Reporters Without Borders. Retrieved from http://www.rsf.org/IMG/pdf/rapport_gb_md_1.pdf