For the past 8 years I have been thinking heavily about the influence the internet has over our lives- it has altered every thread of our entire existence. As Governments and large corporations like Google and Facebook take over control of the flow of internet traffic- it begs the question- is there a different, more decentralized/localized option? Is it even possible to protect your privacy online any longer? Recently I sat down with Dhruv Mehrotra, the creator of the Othernet to discuss his project and how we can change the way we think about and use the internet.
Josh: When did you get into programming? What interests you most in the internet conceptually?
Dhruv: I got in to programming after Occupy Wallstreet. I had a friend working on resource sharing tools for protestors, so I started working with him on that. That tool went on to be repurposed for Hurricane Sandy relief. Theres a few things that interest me conceptually about the internet. First, its the fact that it is this infrastructure that we rely on daily. We expose our most intimate moments to it, yet most people have no idea how it works. We employ bad metaphors like “the cloud” to hide the fact that this infrastructure is made up of a rats nest of wires that connect people globally. The scale of this is unreal…its easier to use a shitty metaphor like the cloud than imagine that you and me I are communicating over signals pulsing over thousands of miles of wire. I wrote a script to get at this once. it measures the distance a signal travels to get to a website. effectively measuring how far a webpage has to travel to get to your computer
The other thing that’s fascinating is that the internet was billed as this decentralized Utopian promise. A potential to overthrow and re-imagine systems of capital, markets, and governments. But in 25 years we’ve the infrastructure consolidate to the point where 70 % of our traffic travels through northern Virginia. 80% of web-traffic ends up at Google or Facebook. Through the story of the internet we see that decentralization on a large scale in a capitalist framework will inevitably consolidate into some exaggerated monster version of capitalism. We believe the market sets up predetermined limits before a competitor has liquidated all others….obviously this is a lie.
J: when did you start the Othernet and why?
D: I had the idea for the Othernet years ago. Back then I was calling it Internet Island, a name I still refer to it as sometimes. Initially I thought of the Othernet for potential use cases in areas without access to wide area coverage from internet service providers. But in the last few years…from Snowden to Trump, I actually see a use case here. I think community built infrastructure has the potential to make communities more resilient to the types of oppression we are seeing globally. The Othernet doesn’t have to replace the internet in these locations. I kind of think that it supplements the internet. This other infrastructure that exists along side the wide area infrastructure that serves a different purpose. Its for the neighborhood, blocks and communities. Its more intimate.
J: Can you explain in layman terms how it works?
D: Its like. Imagine your home router is able to connect to your neighbors home router to extend the distance that signal reaches. Now imagine that on a large scale. What you have is a giant wireless network. The catch here is that there is no internet. When you try to go to a webpage, you are redirected to an internal server. On this server there are webpages uploaded by your neighbors to any URL. so imagine http://www.jessicas.poetry or http://www.fatty.frank. These sites are real webpages that exist only in bedstuy and only on the othernet. Right now people put up books,mp3s, and silly websites for their pets. One day this will expand.
J: Hypothetically, if enough people bought and installed a nano station, the Othernet could be sent across the world- is that right?
D: In a very very hypothetical way, yeah.
J: How is it searchable?
D: I built in a search engine. If you are in Bed Stuy and you connect to the Othernet, your web browser will automatically redirect you to an othernet search engine. Essentially it is an application that crawls through all the content on the Othernet and categorizes each site by keyword. Its like a dumb google that isn’t evil and doesn’t collect your information.
J: Othernet seems almost like a community message board of sorts. What other applications did you imagine it would have within local communities?
D: I’m imagining 1) neighborhood twitter, neighborhood tinder. These things seem funny to me, and I automatically gravitate towards that. 2) A secure chat room is something i am working on. 3) A clone of Wikipedia. 4) A resource sharing tool for bartering would be cool. I really don’t want to deal with any exchange of money over the Othernet.
J: I have often thought of the internet as a new evolutionary force people face today. Do you think the internet is that impactful? Does the Othernet ultimately seek to change that dynamic?
D: The internet has certainly changed the world. Its changed our relations to labor, sex, family and friends. Its also become sort of a right. People demand the right to an open internet. And i actually agree with that. What worries me is people confusing the internet with google. or the internet with Facebook. The internet is much bigger than that. The Othernet doesn’t seek to change the internet. In a way it fills in a gap that the internet opened up. The internet doesn’t give a shit about proximity. Regardless of if I am talking to the guy sitting next to me or my grandparents in India, my signal will travel thousands of miles and end up on someone else’s platform…vulnerable to collection along the way. This neglects the middle distance ( neighborhoods, blocks, communities ) as a distinct space for more intimate types of communication. That’s the gap that my infrastructure tries to fill.
J: you started this project before congress gave the okay for ISPs to sell internet history- has that changed this project in anyway?
D: ISPS selling your data is like electricity companies selling information about when you are home to the highest bidder. Its insane to think that our communications infrastructure is now watching us. This didn’t change the project in anyway though. Technically the Othernet was never going to rely on ISPs, because its a response to their consolidation of infrastructure.
J: How important is the actual infrastructure of the current internet to this project? Modern internet users simply use the internet and rarely think of the moving pieces involved. Is your project trying to change that?
D: Yes, I want people to really think about their communications infrastructure. Unlike current telecommunications I don’t want to hide my infrastructure. If people install a node on their roof I want it to be a fixture in their life. They should dress it up, put googley eyes on it…take care of it the way they might a pet. Obviously I’m sort of joking here, but my point is that this is community infrastructure that ideally is taken care of by the community.
J: I imagine that creating the infrastructure although difficult- was the simplest part of the project. Isn’t one of the reasons the internet has gotten the way it is today because people just don’t care? How do you imagine convincing people to use the Othernet?
D: Yeah, getting people to use this thing is an ongoing struggle. I work with the community board and block association and try to listen to the community. This way, I can build in functionality that is useful for them. An ISP wont do this for you…obviously. Employment is a huge issue in Bed Stuy…more specifically hiring local…I built in a job board in response to this concern. I try to do things like that, A) so people use my project and B) because its respectful….its important to be respectful.
J: Have you ever worried about the Othernet becoming a dark web? Is that kind of the idea? Do you think once people hold ownership in something and have a stake in it- they will better take care of it?
D: I hope that if the community takes ownership they will take better care of it. I don’t think a model of an open decentralized Othernet is good. I think that the things that make a community unique are its rules, customs, and culture. That should be reflected in the infrastructure. I am not oppose to building in an admin interface where the community can vote on deleting certain content. I am not oppose to websites deleting themselves if they aren’t visited. I think that decentralization and total openness of the Othernet will make it impersonal. I think there should be centralization and rules. All determined by the community. If this is about coalition building, then these rules are very important
J: what work have you been doing in your community to introduce the Othernet?
D: Currently just listening and trying to incorporate what I hear. I am at community board meetings and block association meetings. But often there are more pressing needs than my vision of another internet. SO this is a slow moving process. But in a way that’s good.
J: I can see some good applications for the Othernet where I live in New Brunswick. We run basement shows all year- and recently the cops have shut a handful down. I think the Othernet could do a really good job at helping these shows operate under the radar. Do you think what the Othernet becomes in specific area ultimately depends on that region?
D: Yes, and that’s my favorite part about it. Its just infrastructure. The application is dependent on the community. As I said, the rules you build in to your infrastructure make it unique to your community. My vision is a world of little internet islands, each unique and distinct…like a neighborhood.