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It’s time to rethink the internet

The internet ain’t what it used to be, thanks to privacy issues, data leaks, censorship and hate speech. But a group of New Zealanders are working on a way to give power back to the people. 

A flood of headlines over the last week made it clear: the internet has become unhinged.

A San Francisco tech giant has decided it’s necessary to censor one of the most powerful political figures in the world. What we thought were secure messaging apps can now share your information with third parties. Having to ask companies what information they’ve harvested about you, rather than you telling them what they can store, has become the norm.

Can we as scrollers, shoppers and post-ers actually have any say in what appears online and who uses or accesses it? Are we doomed to be forever under the thumb of Big Tech?

With digital companies exerting ever more power over their users, there are renewed calls to hand control back over to the everyman and woman. In tech speak, to decentralise the internet.

A decentralised internet is touted as fairer, more transparent and safer. But it’s not without its challenges.

The way that most sites on the internet work today is through a central entity or system. Social media platforms, for example, store and own their users’ data (posts, location, name, likes/dislikes) and control access to it. You ask them to see what info they have about you. The companies develop their own software and the code behind it is often secret.

A decentralised net flips that on its head. Every user holds their own data, usually on their own computer like any other file, and controls who can look at or use it. Now it’s the companies asking you for access. The software too is often open source, meaning anyone can see how it runs and tweak it if it doesn’t live up to their standards.

“Instead of a big corporation controlling the way information flows around the internet you can have the same thing happening with more participation from the general public,” explains Aaron McDonald, CEO of New Zealand-based tech company Centrality.

“The internet of the early days was intended to be that way. The word ‘internet’ actually came from the fact that it was lots of networks, all independently run,” he says.

Centrality CEO Aaron McDonald (Photo: Richard Parsonson/Supplied)

McDonald is one of many New Zealanders finding ways to decentralise the net, or at least parts of it. Another is Ben Tairea (Ngāti Nurou – Kuki Airani), managing director of Āhau. Āhau is an app that allows whānau and tribal communities to capture, preserve and share information and their histories via secure, whānau-managed databases.

According to Tairea, keeping power in the hands of the people was a big driver for developing their decentralised app. “We looked at how traditional knowledge was handled from a cultural perspective and how that would translate to the digital world,” he says.

“One of the big things we kept coming across was this uncomfortability from a cultural perspective of having to hand over knowledge, store it somewhere else and not having control or ownership over it.”

Āhau is part of a bigger movement for Māori data sovereignty — maintaining Māori access, control and use of data. By putting communities in charge of their histories and information, they could develop solutions to housing or health issues, says Tairea.

“It’s a bit of the decolonisation of the internet. The internet today and technology today has all been designed in a certain way for a specific purpose and that is generally because there’s some financial gain to be drawn out of it.”

The splash page of the Ahau app (Image: Atamai Digital/supplied)

There are others, too, who are fed up with the profit-driven motives of certain internet services, as well as the general “creepiness” of them, as Wellington-based developer Piet Geursen puts it.

A lack of transparency around what’s known about you or how that’s used to manipulate you, he says, is one of the reasons people are drawn to decentralised social media platforms.

Geursen is part of a decentralised Facebook or Twitter of sorts called Scuttlebutt. On the service, which Geursen helped develop, instead of messages, posts and photos being sent to a server in California before appearing online for friends to see, the messages are sent directly between friends (peer to peer).

Geursen likens it to writing an entry into your own personal diary then having a friend ask what you’ve been up to, and handing a copy of that diary entry over to them. It’s more like the real world, he says.

There are, however, potential drawbacks. Because decentralised social media are secure and private by design, with no Big Brother looking at what gets posted, Geursen warns they could be used by groups to spread hate. There’s evidence that’s already happening.

There’s no overarching group or algorithm that polices posts but that doesn’t mean decentralised platforms run amok according to Geursen. They’re self-policed.

Scuttlebutt, for example, allows people to block other users, meaning they and their friends don’t see the hateful user’s posts. Blocking cuts the chain of hate speech spread and silos hateful users. They’re there, but their messages aren’t being spread far and wide for all to see.

“Just like real life, if you’re an asshole people aren’t going to invite you to be around their friends,” Geursen says. “If you want to be part of a community then you have to follow the community rules, whatever they are.”

Plus, people still have to abide by the laws of the country they live in, McDonald points out. Developers can also build rules into the software (like Scuttlebutt’s blocking feature) to curb unwanted behaviour.

An introduction to decentralised social media platform Scuttlebutt

Another selling point of a decentralised web is that it’s more secure. Because everyone holds a copy of their data (and, in the case of Scuttlebutt, their friends’ data too) you’re not putting all your data eggs in one central basket.

That could help avoid hackers gaining access to personal data by hacking big, central databases like what happened last week to the Reserve Bank and the Health Research Council.

Scaled up, it’s possible for people in the future to have entire online decentralised identities, with everyone holding a database of their personal information including age, health records, bank account numbers etc, that they grant organisations or companies access to.

A safe, secure, people-empowered, people-policed internet sounds like a dream but the jury is out on whether it’s a possibility.

Tairea agrees, but says it’s a long way off (we’re talking decades). “We’re still in the experimentation phase,” he says.

University of Auckland blockchain researcher Alex Sims believes we’ll see more and more decentralised parts of the web. The only thing standing in the way of that is ourselves and our unwillingness to change.

Sims admits that the nuts and bolts of how decentralised systems work can be tricky to understand. That’s off-putting to people. But then, she says, so was the whole idea of the internet in the first place.

With decentralised apps being mostly a niche thing at the moment, the regular web does seem like a pretty appealing place. “Those centralised social media platforms are extremely polished,” says Geursen. “They spend millions of dollars building very honed products. If you go to something like Scuttlebutt, it’s made by a handful of people in their spare time with no money.

“It’s hard to get people into it.”

McDonald thinks we’ll get there, pointing to one of Centrality’s ventures, a messaging service called Sylo that hopes to rival the WhatsApps and Messengers of the world. “People are getting so frustrated [with current systems] but also the technology is good enough that it is easier to adopt.”

Tairea too is optimistic and sees some momentum growing here at home. Āhau and Scuttlebutt developers collaborate and share ideas, solving some of the clunkiness that can come with decentralisation, he says.

“It’s definitely from our perspective not only the future of what cultural technology might look like but what a better internet might look like.”

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