Data privacy protection
The Sky Above Rostock

The free access activist Christian Wedell high above Rostock.
Photo (CC BY-NC-ND): Michael Schrenk / FUTURZWEI

Computer geeks in Rostock have set up a communication network for citizens that blocks intelligence agencies and businesses that use data for commercial purposes.

Christian Wedell opens the small round lockbox next to his front door: It contains the key to the roof of the twelve-story apartment building. He takes the elevator up, takes a few steps across the roof and climbs a steep ladder to his destination: Attached to a pole are wok-sized satellite dishes, antennae that are reminiscent of neon lamps, as well as several white boxes that are slightly larger and thicker than bars of chocolate: routers for Rostock’s Opennet Initiative.

From up here, one can see as far as Warnemünde where another relay station is installed on a roof – as is the case on several university and apartment buildings, atop a power plant and on houses in about ten villages in the region. On top of that, several dozen citizens of Rostock have installed routers (roughly 83 Euros each) in their windows, thus providing signals for themselves, other members of the initiative, and in some locations, even the public.

It all began eleven years ago. Techies in Rostock, Berlin, Weimar and Leipzig almost simultaneously came up with the idea to establish communication networks for their communities. Later on, they decided to join forces to create the free internet access movement. In Rostock, a few employees and students of the local university were annoyed by the fact that the internet at the university was much faster than in their homes. Why not extend the fast DSL connections into residential areas where they had only slow ISDN? Soon thereafter, it was up and running – and the network began to grow.

It was convenient that the computer geeks were in private contact with computer experts at companies and public institutions who helped install devices on their own roofs. Furthermore, the connection to the university’s fiber optic cables provided fast transmission and high data capacities.

Faster, and what is more important: secure

An almost exclusively male group meets every Monday evening around a wooden table at the cultural center Frieda 23 – directly under the roof, as close as possible to the router, of course. Most of them are computer scientists between the ages of 20 and 50. “When we began, we thought that Opennet would be a two- or three-year project. Back then, the main issue was a lack of fast and affordable internet connections for everyone,” recalls 39-year-old IT specialist Matthias Mahnke, who has been on board since the beginning.

In the meantime, the focus has shifted to the commercialization of private data and government surveillance. Because the roughly 150 members of the initiative use but three internet servers in the city, it is impossible to match individual users with their data. The router’s software is also open-source, making it impossible for a private company to find a backdoor to spy on users. “Our experiences in the early stages led to an epiphany: You have to take things into your own hands and regain control,” Mahnke says.

Communication and support for others

Sharing and democratizing information are core values in this scene. That is why the members in Rostock document their technology for all the world to see on a Wiki that everyone can use and further develop. What’s more, the crew assists anyone who wants to set up an open-network Wi-Fi station or has problems using it. They also support similar projects in other cities. “The seed we sowed ten years ago has borne fruit: Today you can find open-network Wi-Fi networks at 100-km intervals all across Germany,” Mahnke explains. On these islands reigns the notion that the internet is public property: decentralized and controlled from the bottom up, without hierarchy or commercial exploitation.

“It would be cool if the networks could grow together and the internet became independent of big internet service providers,” 34-year-old computer scientist Robert Waltemath explains his vision. That would also create democratic structures, he argues. With commercial providers, it is considerably faster to download data than it is to upload it; the role of the passive consumer is inherently encoded in the technical DNA. The members of this grassroots movement, on the other hand, want all users to take on the dual role of sender and receiver of information: a network of the people, by the people and for the people.

Activism on- and offline

The Opennet activists are also mindful of what their actions mean for the environment and global work conditions. As with all routers, the ones they are using are produced in Asia under appalling conditions. Furthermore, the routers contain rare-earth metals, the extraction of which results in poisonous and even radioactive sludge. At least with Opennet, many people share a router, leading to fewer overall devices being used than in a conventional setting with one router per household. They have even experimented with solar and wind-powered electricity. “But what is missing is manpower, not opportunity. If someone wishes to take on this task, we would be very open to that,” says Mahnke.

The group’s ideal is one of hierarchy-free and interlinked networks, even at the social level. Almost everyone here is committed to other initiatives – from local radio station Lohro to the local Transition Town Group, the food co-op or solidary agriculture. “We are part of a greater movement that is all about re-decentralization,” Robert Waltemath explains enthusiastically. But Opennet has not lost its initial fun factor. Co-founder Mahnke says this is due to the fact that there has always been a critical mass of human assets: Tasks are divvied up in a way that single members are not constantly overburdened.

For example, it is currently Christian Wedell who happens to be available: He completed his degree in philosophy and history two years ago and now works on a small project at the university. He also has two side jobs as an IT-administrator. The man seems to have a greater capacity than many a wireless network: He is currently planning a series of free workshops called Openlab, and next week, he and a buddy intend to climb on the roof of another high-rise to set up a new internet connection.