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Blinding dictators with low-power lightbulbs

The internet, it turns out, can be turned off. It can be filtered, it can be monitored, it can be turned against its users.

The internet, it turns out, can be turned off. It can be filtered, it can be monitored, it can be turned against its users. Dictators can eavesdrop on their subjects, and silence voices at home and abroad. Security services, safe behind their walls of secrecy, can soak up information. Even commercial interests, flush with cash from years of market dominance, can buy laws that protect those markets through perverting the internet - even if it means criminalising their customers in the process.

This is not the internet of our dreams.

However, there is another internet being built. It's not, as you might think, faster than before, with terabits per second to every home through superconducting quantum cables. In fact, it's rather slow and rather dull; it's the Internet of Things.

We reported on this yesterday, when chip company NXP announced a set of devices that connect light bulbs to the Internet. It might seem an odd thing to do, but there are plenty of reasons - NXP wants to sell a lot of chips, for example - and some of them are even quite sensible. Power management is a big one: we won't need to build new power stations if we don't use so much electricity because our machines are smart at turning things down or off. Metering, fault reporting, environmental sensing, all manner of things become possible if everything in the world is hooked onto the net.

And silicon is cheap. Programming it, though, is hard. We're already running out of old-style Internet addresses, so if we want to add billions more things we have to use the new Internet addresses of the IPv6 protocol. But IPv6 has a lot more overhead - which makes routing its messages more complex and more power-hungry. Just what you don't want in something designed to be simple, and to save power.

Yet this is being sorted out. A routing protocol called Mesh-under[PDF] takes IPv6 packets and sends them along by splitting them up into loads of tiny fragments, each of which can take a separate route over, say, low-power wireless. In a building with hundreds of lightbulbs there are many thousands of possible routes; no centralised routing makes things flexible, self-configuring and yes, low power.

Although designed to relay small messages about lightbulbs, the same technology can be adapted to do the same for longer messages about and between, say, people. And with no centralised router, there's no one point where messages can be sniffed, filtered, spoofed or blocked.

That may not seem so useful within a building, where you can stroll down a floor and talk to whoever's on the same mesh network as your nearest lightbulb. But take a look at the list of visible Wi-Fi access points next time you're making a connection: chances are, you'll see plenty. Imagine all those were running Mesh-under routing, with the range and speed of normal Wi-Fi; then imagine all the wireless access points that each of those access points could see. Voila, a complete wireless internet, entirely in parallel with the current one, but entirely free of central control and ISPs. With gateways in reliable locations, it can interchange with the old internet, but mostly it's there for the people, by the people and always with the people.

A bit starry-eyed? A bit dangerous? Yes, but so was the original internet, the one that changed the world just one step ahead of those who would have it otherwise. That was the internet of our dreams. As a result, we now have the expertise, the cheap technology and the universal understanding that can make it happen - and happen tomorrow, with free software and the wireless infrastructure already installed.

It's already been built. We just have to turn it on.