John Harris: Around the world, a handful of visionaries are plotting an alternative online future. Is it really possible to remake the internet in a way that’s egalitarian, decentralised and free of snooping?
Republished from The Guardian
The office planner on the wall features two reminders: “Technosocialism” and “Indienet institute”. A huge husky named Oskar lies near the door, while the two people who live and work here – a plain apartment block on the west side of Malmö, Sweden – go about their daily business.
Aral Balkan and Laura Kalbag moved here from Brighton in 2015. Balkan has Turkish and French citizenship, and says their decision was sparked by two things: increasing concerns about the possibility of Britain leaving the EU, and the Conservative government’s Investigatory Powers Act, otherwise known as the snoopers’ charter, some of which was declared unlawful this week by the court of appeal. The legislation cut straight to the heart of what now defines the couple’s public lives: the mesh of corporate and government surveillance surrounding the internet, and how to do something about it.
Kalbag, 31, is from Surrey, has a web design background and says she’s “always been a very socially minded, troublemaking kind of person”. Balkan, 41, traces what he does now to his experiences as a small child, designing his own games for a personal computer. It was “the last time when we actually owned and controlled our computers – there wasn’t some corporation somewhere watching everything we were doing, storing it and monetising it.”
Now, they style themselves as “a two-person-and-one-husky social enterprise striving for social justice in the digital age”.
Balkan and Kalbag form one small part of a fragmented rebellion whose prime movers tend to be located a long way from Silicon Valley. These people often talk in withering terms about Big Tech titans such as Mark Zuckerberg, and pay glowing tribute to Edward Snowden. Their politics vary, but they all have a deep dislike of large concentrations of power and a belief in the kind of egalitarian, pluralistic ideas they say the internet initially embodied.
What they are doing could be seen as the online world’s equivalent of punk rock: a scattered revolt against an industry that many now think has grown greedy, intrusive and arrogant – as well as governments whose surveillance programmes have fuelled the same anxieties. As concerns grow about an online realm dominated by a few huge corporations, everyone involved shares one common goal: a comprehensively decentralised internet.
Balkan energetically travels the world, delivering TED-esque talks with such titles as “Free is a Lie” and “Avoiding Digital Feudalism”. His appearances have proliferated on YouTube, although he himself uses an online video player that doesn’t harvest personal data. (“If there’s a free and open, decentralised and usable alternative, we try to use it,” he says – he favours, for example, the privacy-respecting search engine DuckDuckGo over Google.) At the same time, he and Kalbag are on a painstaking journey that involves ideas and prototypes aimed at creating a new kind of digital life.
Back in 2014, they came up with a plan for the Indiephone, “a beautiful new mobile platform and a phone that empowers regular people to own their own data”. “One of my mistakes was, I told people about it,” says Balkan. “And then we realised there was no way we could finance it.” Assisted by around £100,000 in crowdfunding, they started work on a new kind of social network, called Heartbeat, whose users would hold on to their data, and communicate privately. Since then, they have launched an app for iPhone and Macs called Better Blocker, purchased by about 14,000 people, and with a simple function: in a much more thorough way than most adblocking software, it disables the endless tracking devices that now follow people as they move around the web.
In the last few months, they have started working with people in the Belgian city of Ghent – or, in Flemish, Gent – where the authorities own their own internet domain, complete with .gent web addresses. Using the blueprint of Heartbeat, they want to create a new kind of internet they call the indienet – in which people control their data, are not tracked and each own an equal space online. This would be a radical alternative to what we have now: giant “supernodes” that have made a few men in northern California unimaginable amounts of money thanks to the ocean of lucrative personal information billions of people hand over in exchange for their services.
“I got into the web because I liked the democracy of it,” says Kalbag, who has just published a book titled Accessibility for Everyone, about innovating in a way that includes those who technology too often ignores – not least people with disabilities. “I want to be able to be in a society where I have control over my information, and other people do as well. Being a woman in technology, you can see how hideously unequal things are and how people building these systems don’t care about anyone other than themselves. I think we have to have technology that serves everybody – not just rich, straight, white guys.”
In the Scottish coastal town of Ayr, where a company called MaidSafe works out of a silver-grey office on an industrial estate tucked behind a branch of Topps Tiles, another version of this dream seems more advanced. MaidSafe’s first HQ, in nearby Troon, was an ocean-going boat. The company moved to an office above a bridal shop, and then to an unheated boatshed, where the staff sometimes spent the working day wearing woolly hats. It has been in its new home for three months: 10 people work here, with three in a newly opened office in Chennai, India, and others working remotely in Australia, Slovakia, Spain and China.
MaidSafe was founded 12 years ago by the 52-year-old computing engineer and former lifeboat captain David Irvine. He has the air of someone with so many ideas he can barely get them all out. Despite spurning money from venture capitalists, his company has come from humble beginnings to the verge of its proper launch.
In a pristine meeting room, Irvine explains a mistake carried over from old-fashioned corporate computer networks to the modern internet. “There’s a big server, and people connect to it. That used to be the way companies work; now, they’ve done the same thing to the internet. Which is remarkably stupid, because they are central points of failure. They’re points of attack. There are passwords on them: stuff gets stolen.” He goes on: “And as the internet was starting, it was clear to me straight away that it would centralise around several large companies and they would basically control the world.”
His alternative is what he calls the Safe network: the acronym stands for “Safe Access for Everyone”. In this model, rather than being stored on distant servers, people’s data – files, documents, social-media interactions – will be broken into fragments, encrypted and scattered around other people’s computers and smartphones, meaning that hacking and data theft will become impossible. Thanks to a system of self-authentication in which a Safe user’s encrypted information would only be put back together and unlocked on their own devices, there will be no centrally held passwords.
No one will leave data trails, so there will be nothing for big online companies to harvest. The financial lubricant, Irvine says, will be a cryptocurrency called Safecoin: users will pay to store data on the network, and also be rewarded for storing other people’s (encrypted) information on their devices. Software developers, meanwhile, will be rewarded with Safecoin according to the popularity of their apps. There is a community of around 7,000 interested people already working on services that will work on the Safe network, including alternatives to platforms such as Facebook and YouTube.
One big question hangs over Irvine’s concept of a decentralised internet: given what we know about what some people use technology for, the encrypted information stored on people’s devices will include fragments of nasty, illegal stuff, won’t it?
“It will. It will. It definitely will. It’s all society’s data. All information,” says Irvine
I read him a quote from the company’s blog: “Even MaidSafe staff don’t know who is on the network, where they are based, what has been stored and where the data is located.”
“No. We don’t know. That’s fine, though.”
Is it? Even if it includes child abuse images, or so-called revenge porn or beheading videos?
“Yeah. I think it’s fine. Because to me, the whole thing here is like … You’re building a road, and you think: ‘How can I be absolutely certain that a paedophile doesn’t drive on that bit of tarmac?’ You can’t. That’s the thing with the internet. When you’ve got these controlled things like Facebook, of course they could clamp down on some of that stuff. But also, it means they can manipulate the whole of society. And we can’t be in that position.”
Irvine adds that MaidSafe’s encryption is no more developed than the kind already used by the net’s criminal elements. “We’re not enabling them. We’re enabling everybody else,” he says. He says he would encourage the police to go on to the network and use the same detection and entrapment methods they already use on the so-called dark web, where users can stay anonymous.
Once MaidSafe is up and running, there will be very little any government or authority can do about it: “We can’t stop the network if we start it. If anyone turned round and said: ‘You need to stop that,’ we couldn’t. We’d have to go round to people’s houses and switch off their computers. That’s part of the whole thing. The network is like a cyber-brain; almost a lifeform in itself. And once you start it, that’s it.”
Before my trip to Scotland, I tell him, I spent whole futile days signing up to some of the decentralised social networks that already exist – Steemit, Diaspora, Mastadon – and trying to approximate the kind of experience I can easily get on, say, Twitter or Facebook. They were largely so underpopulated that there’s been no incentive to go back. Won’t the same thing happen to MaidSafe?
“It might,” he says.
But is he optimistic or pessimistic? “Oh, this won’t fail. It won’t. If you ask me: ‘Will this be the future?’ … absolutely. Not necessarily my version, but a version of a completely decentralised network based on privacy, security, freedom – that will exist.”
One big focus of the conversation about a different internet are cryptocurrencies and so-called blockchain technology, whose most spectacular story so far has been the rise of Bitcoin. All users of a cryptocurrency have their own “private key”, which unlocks the opportunity to buy and sell it. Instead of financial transactions having to be hosted by a bank – or, for that matter, an online service such as PayPal – a payment in a cryptocurrency is validated by a network of computers using a shared algorithim. A record of the transaction is added to an online ledger – the blockchain – in a way that is unalterable. And herein lie two potential breakthroughs.
One, according to some cryptocurrency enthusiasts, is a means of securing and protecting people’s identities that doesn’t rely on remotely stored passwords. The other is a hope that we can leave behind intermediaries such as Uber and eBay, and allow buyers and sellers to deal directly with each other.
Blockstack, a startup based in New York, aims to bring blockchain technology to the masses. Like MaidSafe, its creators aim to build a new internet, and a 13,000-strong crowd of developers are already working on apps that either run on the platform Blockstack has created, or use its features. OpenBazaar is an eBay-esque service, up and running since November last year, which promises “the world’s most private, secure, and liberating online marketplace”. Casa aims to be an decentralised alternative to Airbnb; Guild is a would-be blogging service that bigs up its libertarian ethos and boasts that its founders will have “no power to remove blogs they don’t approve of or agree with”.
Muneeb Ali, 36, is originally from Islamabad in Pakistan and is one of Blockstack’s two founders. He is an admirer of Snowden, who, in March, will be the star attraction at a Blockstack event in Berlin.
An initial version of Blockstack is already up and running. Even if data is stored on conventional drives, servers and clouds, thanks to its blockchain-based “private key” system each Blockstack user controls the kind of personal information we currently blithely hand over to Big Tech, and has the unique power to unlock it. “That’s something that’s extremely powerful – and not just because you know your data is more secure because you’re not giving it to a company,” he says. “A hacker would have to hack a million people if they wanted access to their data.”
It’s significant that Blockstack isn’t based in northern California: Ali says: “The culture in Silicon Valley isn’t the right fit for us.” Even though the startup has attracted millions of dollars from its backers – who include venture capitalists – Ali insists they are in for the long haul.
Back in Malmö, Balkan recalls that Zuckerberg put out a new year statement in which he tried to sound a note of sympathy with people who have grown sick of an online world controlled by a few big players. “In the 1990s and 2000s, most people believed technology would be a decentralising force,” Zuckerberg wrote. “But today, many people have lost faith in that promise. With the rise of a small number of big tech companies – and governments using technology to watch their citizens – many people now believe technology only centralises power rather than decentralises it.” He mentioned encryption and cryptocurrencies, and said he was “interested to go deeper and study the positive and negative aspects of these technologies and how best to use them in our services”.
Balkan marvels. “How does that work with a huge entity like Facebook, that just sucks power up?” he asks. “It’s absolute spin.”
He and Kalbag have much more modest ambitions, and that, he says, is the whole point: if we want a more diverse, open, decentralised internet, developers are going to have to wave goodbye to the idea of huge platforms that will supposedly make them rich.
“We’ve kind of been brainwashed into this Silicon Valley idea of success,” he says. “You know: ‘Unless you’ve made a billion dollars and you’re on the cover of Forbes magazine as the next king, you’re not successful.’ With our projects, no one’s going to make a billion dollars if we’re successful – not me, not Laura, not anyone.”
He drains the last of his coffee and checks his phone. “And if we do, you’ll know something’s gone wrong. We’ll have screwed up.”
Lead image: Punk rock internet illustration. Illustration: Andy Martin/Heart