Student group dedicated to net neutrality at Grinnell

Anyone who’s been to South Campus has seen the writing on the wall. More than mere chalk-art, the words written in the South Loggia spell out the constitution of the Free Network Movement.

“[We] will create a civilization of the mind in cyberspace,” it reads in part. “May it be more humane and fair, than the world your governments have made so far.”

The message was written by leaders of the new student group Free Network Movement, or FreeNet, dedicated to promoting network neutrality.

Net Neutrality

Isaac Wilder '13 sits in Main Lounge on Sunday, Sept 26 with attendees of the first meeting for the Free Network Movement - Daniel Penny

The idea of network neutrality proposes that Internet service providers treat all data equally and that no restrictions on content or sites be enforced. While the American people wait for lawmakers to decide what Internet service providers can and cannot regulate, one Grinnellian chose to use the resources around him and set in a motion an attempt to make sure Grinnell takes a firm stance in supporting the policy.

“A neutral network gives every participant a voice,” said FreeNet founder Isaac Wilder ’13, who is a writer for the S&B. “We cannot allow this freedom to be pawned off to corporations. This is our only chance to shape the way that humanity uses its global data network, and it is manifestly clear that the advent of such a network will be the defining moment in the course of human events.”

Wilder hosted the first meeting for FreeNet in Main Lounge on Sunday Sept 26.
The meeting was attended by about 15 students and Professor John Stone, computer science. Group leaders explained what net neutrality means and how the group wants to act to ensure it.

“I think one of the major obstacles to a more developed consciousness about the issue is that it is technical, and it is a little bit recondite,” Wilder said. “That is sort of the reason we are doing what we’re doing, we can educate about the issue and make it presentable and make it accessible.”

In terms of goals, FreeNet is keeping it simple.

“The primary objective is to build a network,” Wilder said. “They say ‘think globally, act locally.’ Naturally, we’re going to start small and build a network the way they ought to be built.”
Wilder believes this construction has become a much more feasible task thanks to a recent action by the Federal Communications Committee (FCC). The FCC switched all television broadcasts from analog signals to digital, opening bandwidth that local Internet service providers can use.

Stone shares Wilder’s ambition, especially considering the achievements of other communities.

“There are communities of about this size that have set up their own wireless network. There is some expense involved in it but it’s not as great as you might think,” Stone said. “One in particular is the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network, they have quite a nice website that goes through practically step-by-step about how you can, if you have access to the equipment, set up your own wireless network.”

The reason for doing all of this is to ensure one of the critical roles Stone hopes the Internet will continue to play long into the future.

“The direction in which I would like to see [the Internet] go is to continue to fulfill its promise as an instrument of universal education.” Stone said. “The greatest boon of the Internet, now that it has global reach…is to bring access to knowledge to people who formerly have no way of finding out things about the world and its other habitants, of cooperating with one another to continue to learn and act on the basis of what they’ve learned.”

Wilder believes his goals are based off our core values.

“We want to have a conversation with the administration about how Grinnell can be forwarding thinking in its policies and how Grinnell can be at the forefront of a very important cause and really throw itself behind the principle that it exposes and supposedly supports,” Wilder said.
“So, ‘Truth and Humanity’ is our motto, it’s fundamentally about an opportunity, a moral imperative to do something.”

Wilder thinks President Raynard Kington will be sympathetic to his cause.

“President Kington was at the NIH when they instituted a policy that any research for which they provided funding had to publish their work openly, on the Internet, so that everybody could,” Wilder said. “That leads me to believe that, in fact, President Kington will be receptive to the idea and he that maybe he shares a bit of the philosophy.”
Another prospective project the group may take on is hosting a server for the open source social network Diaspora. An alternative to Facebook, Diaspora has a stronger focus on users’ privacy.

“Even if the Diaspora team is writing code that has the potential to ultimately be very useful, it is still going to take work here from people here to actually build a network,” Wilder said.
That is where Professor Stone comes in.

“I suggested one possibility have a guided reading course in the spring: What you need to know in order contribute to the Diaspora Project,” Stone said. “If there are takers for that I suggested that would be something I would be willing to do. So that is the kind of role I think I could play in working towards the same objectives as the group even if not being a particularly active member of it”

“The reason why you would build a network is self governance basically,” Wilder said. “We to self-govern a network, we want a network where the rules are made by the people that use it.”
If the idea catches on for a much large spectrum, in Wilder’s eyes, it could be quite the accomplishment.

“So, the vision is for communities to come together and do their part in building this network. It takes works to build a global community and it starts with a much smaller community and that’s what we want to show here, it’s start to come together and we start working together on this project,” Wilder said. “I think it’s easy to see how it has the potential to be the greatest project that we’ve undertaken as a species. The interconnection for all of us. That is, to me, breathtaking, but to anybody, awesome.”