Unrepentant Hippie and World Networker Randy Bush Enters Net’s Hall of Fame

The network doesn’t spread itself. Humans have to do it.

And Randy Bush, a longtime network engineer, has been spreading the internet around the world since the 1980s on his free time, something he considers to be an extension of the radical and progressive politics of his parents and grandparents. And of his hippie years in the 1960s.

For his pioneering work, Bush was among the first 33 inductees into the Internet Society’s Hall of Fame. ISOC noted Bush for his founding of the  Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC), a nonprofit funded in part by the National Science Foundation that’s dedicated to helping new networks sprout up around the world.

After the tumult of the 1960s, Bush settled into a career as a computer engineer, which he considered a far cry from political activism. But then the late 1980s, Bush began getting requests from computer engineers from Africa and Latin America to help them be connected to internet.

“There were perfectly good scientists that were isolated and becoming out of date very quickly,” Bush said. “The internet at that point was not Facebook – it was scientists and NGOs.”

Bush, seeing an opportunity to do some social good with his computer-engineering skills, soon found himself volunteering.

And he soon found it was political, though he wasn’t averse to getting help from The Man.

Bush credits a man named Steve Goldstein at the National Science Foundation for being an early visionary who found money and equipment to help jump-start networks around the world.

“He said, ‘Come take money and facilitate some of this stuff,’” Bush said. “People had a need and he realized it would become infrastructure.”

On odd Wednesdays, I think the internet is probably good

Then in Rio in 1991, at an initial networking meeting for Latin America, Bush met a Peruvian journalist, Jose Soriano, who had been one of the “disappeared” in Argentina, who escaped to France only to be bitten with a vision for an interconnected world — despite not being a techie.

“Jose latched onto me,” Bush said. With some phone lines, airfare and equipment proved by Goldstein, Bush went to train Peruvian engineers in UUCP networking and set up a mesh around Lima, connecting universities, all connected to a backhaul satellite link. On Soriano’s urging, they also expanded the network to rural areas, with hospitals, kiosks and even the military connected.

Bush says he learned much from working with Jose — including how not to be the white man bringing the gift of technology. For instance, when local engineers had a problem and asked Bush for help and Bush knew who could answer the question, Jose pointed out there was a right way and a wrong way to deal with that.

“I learned: Do not represent them. Jose said, ‘Do not get info about X; introduce me to the person who has info about X,” Bush said. “That was deadly obvious but brilliant.”

“This was political to me,” Bush said, and he was determined not to be a neo-colonialist.

Bush contrasts that ethos with a Clinton-era plan to give the internet to Africa — well, to 10 countries in Africa via the Leland Iniative. At a meeting in the White House to discuss the plan, Bush asked people in the room if anyone had any idea how many countries were actually in Africa. No one knew there were 53 or 54, depending on how you count.

“It was very naive,” Bush said. “They drew up boilerplate to give to each telecom ministry and gave them internet connectivity for two years, but all connections had to go through monopoly telecoms. It killed insurgent telecoms and destroyed the countries’ nascent efforts. Some are still recovering today.”

Bush did do work in Africa, including early networks in Kenya, in South Africa during the Apartheid era (a decision that was difficult given his family history included boycotts of Spanish products because of Franco) and in Guinea, the former French colony whose infrastructure was ravaged by the departing colonizers.

Bush continued his volunteer work through the 1990s when he became the founding engineer at Verio, and continues to this day, now that he works as research fellow and network operator at Internet Initiative Japan Research, Japan’s first commercial ISP.

And some days, despite the increasing push for censorship and overly broad copyright protection measures on the net, Bush thinks his work was useful.

He’s wondered, however, why “countries faced with dire issues like civil wars and lack of clean water issues were willing to spend resources on this silly networking thing?”

And he’s doubtful of the claims of a Twitter revolution and is concerned that entrenched political forces will subvert the net’s potential.

But he’s still hopeful.

“People are able to make a living remotely,” Bush said. “There are call centers in Kenya and Ghana and the net can disintermediate middlemen on handmade goods in Lima.”

“The idea that labor value is realized appeals to my upbringing,” Bush said. “And on odd Wednesdays, I think the internet is probably good and is helping people become first-class citizens.

Bush refers to a Kenyan who went abroad for a university education, who on going back to a non-connected country became a non-citizen due to the country’s lack of telecom infrastructure.

“The internet made him a first-class citizen again,” Bush said.

And then there was the Chancellor of the National University in Guinea who, after being educated at Cambridge, returned to run a university that did not have a single phone until an educator at the World Bank found the money to fund a project Bush worked on that brought the net to the university via radio.

“These people are amazing,” Bush said. “When they ask for something, it is hard to say no.”

Update: This story initially misspelled Steve Goldstein’s name.