community networks: Reloaded

Amazon is in the news, yet again (when isn’t it?). This time it’s for ‘Amazon Sidewalk‘: it aims to connect together every Echo speaker and Ring security camera in the US into a shared wireless network.

I first saw these plans for Sidewalk mentioned in The Register last year. It’s now receiving more widespread media coverage, including in yesterday’s Guardian (‘Amazon US customers have one week to opt out of mass wireless sharing‘).

Decades ago …

The idea of shared wireless networks is nothing new — it’s been around for several decades. Back in 2002, Microsoft’s ‘Consumer Wireless Mesh’ video showcased work taking place on community-based networks.

Screenshot from the 2002 Microsoft video on ‘The Consumer Wireless Mesh’. Source: Microsoft.

The video explored the idea of how communities could pool and share their devices and networks on an informed, consensual, opt-in basis — the opposite of the approach Amazon has apparently adopted. It also required reciprocity: if a household wanted to utilise community resources, they needed to offer something in return (such as contributing a quota of pooled file storage for example).

‘Towards digital communities’ from ‘Visions of the future — enabled by technology’. Jerry Fishenden 2005, using screenshots from the 2002 Microsoft video ‘The Consumer Wireless Mesh’.

The idea of sharing household devices and networks had some obvious merits, including helping provide local, distributed backups, as well as improving performance by reducing the load on upstream ISP broadband services. A household might access a movie for example that someone nearby had already downloaded and cached, streaming it from a shared community service using smart, multi-path routing over local household networks rather than downloading it all over again.

More obviously controversial however were ideas such as shared community access to everyone’s security cameras. It implied a degree of trust in everyone participating in the community network, something unlikely to be matched by reality. Even the potentially less controversial aspects required strong security and privacy engineering to avoid being compromised. That in turn required a trusted form of identity, authentication and authorisation — not just for individuals and “households”, but also devices. And all of these interweaving community interactions needed to be simple for users to understand, navigate, control and use.

Policy implications

What had started as a relatively simple idea — to encourage community-centric, edge-based, resource-efficient, socially-engaging networks — rapidly became more complex, both technically and politically.

That 2002 video however proved useful at the time in my engagements with policymakers and regulators. The vision and work in progress it highlighted provided the basis for me to explore community-based and edge-based networking, including its various challenges — notably on the usability, security, privacy, legal and regulatory fronts.

The potential role of community networks. Source: Jerry Fishenden, 2005.

Some 16 years on from those discussions, Amazon Sidewalk appears to be focused on the upper right ‘wireless mesh households’ cluster of my old diagram: devices in different households sharing network connectivity between them to improve their potential resilience.

Nothing new under the sun

The current controversy about Amazon Sidewalk provides yet more evidence that the idea technology moves too quickly for policymakers and regulators to successfully understand, anticipate and oversee it is false: the many years since 2002 are proof of that.

As Bill Buxton observes, the time-lag between research and development to mainstream commercial realisation of an idea averages around 20 years — a timescale even slow-moving policymakers and regulators should be able to handle.

All of which begs the much bigger, and evergreen, question: what needs to be done to fix the recurrent and long-standing gulf between technology and technology policy? If we want secure and trusted digital economies — and to avoid the arbitrary top-down imposition of often random or ill-judged technologies and technology decisions by both corporations and governments — it’s a question long overdue a credible answer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.