Every few weeks it seems that companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter are in the spotlight for issues around security and privacy. Each time the public is able to catch some small glimpse behind the curtain of what these companies are doing with all of the personal information they control, there is inevitably a backlash, followed by some sort of apology or explanation from the company.
This cycle has become predictable and repetitive, not unlike any of the recent output from longtime punk rockers Rancid. The reason for this conundrum can perhaps best be explained by Aral Balkan, designer and cofounder of ind.ie and outspoken activist for a free and open Internet.
“It is simply their business model to monetize your data,” Balkan says. “They provide us with all kinds of free services, from email and messaging to apps, games and cloud services. Then, as if we were rats in a maze, they track how we use these services and study it. They spy on you not because they are evil, but because that is simply how they make money; the business model of ‘free’ is the business model of corporate surveillance.”
If thinking about that is a little too bleak for you, fear not, for Balkan and his team have been hard at work for much of the last year on developing alternatives to the “Spyware 2.0” (Balkan’s own terminology) technologies like Dropbox, Facebook and Google. As of this week, his team has launched a crowdfunding campaign for ind.ie. With ind.ie, Balkan is working on creating a new, “post-cloud” network that allows users to find friends, connect and share content on a one to one level without a middleman and without anyone spying on you.
Balkan’s team is working on creating a host of technologies that will power ind.ie. The first is Pulse, which is available for free download now. Pulse has similar functionality to Dropbox, in that it allows users to sync their devices, so that they can have access to the same content across each device and also share content with others.
The difference is that Pulse is able to create a direct connection between the devices that isn’t hosted on a third party’s site or servers. It is a direct connection that remains private to the specific users. Pulse is also free and open software; the source code is readily available for all techy nerds to open and play with.
Built on top of Pulse is an application called Heartbeat. Heartbeat is a social network client that allows users to find friends and share thoughts, photos or anything else. Heartbeat is able to find friends using Waystone, the last fundamental technology of ind.ie. Again the difference is that Heartbeat and Waystone are mainly there to help users find their contacts, make the connections (using Pulse) and then step out of the way.
“The current systems we have want us to always be connected to their technology and don’t allow us to have conversations in private,” Balkan says. “They want to be overhearing everything we say, and seeing every action we take. With Heartbeat, you have full ownership and control.”
Based in the U.K., Aral Balkan has been a part of the independent technology and design communities for close to 15 years. He has traveled across the world attending and speaking at conferences, mainly dealing with protecting fundamental freedoms and democracy in technology and on the Internet.
“There was once a time when private was the default,” Balkan says. “In the days of the personal computer, we took for granted that any data on our computers was ours and ours alone and no one else could access it without our permission. In the era of the World Wide Web, we now live in a centralized topology where the Internet is dominated by a handful of publicly-traded transnational companies with ubiquitous reach.”
Balkan uses the term “centralized” to indicate that there are a small group of centers/gatekeepers through which we all must pass to gain access to our friends, photos, messages, and everything else we’ve come to expect from the web. He also makes a distinction that what he is going for with ind.ie is not a “decentralized” model.
“A decentralized system, when cultured in an unregulated enzymatic pool of private subsidy, will naturally coalesce by opportunistically exploiting inherent economies of scale until all that is left are a handful of gargantuan tumors. Today, we call these tumors Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and so on. And we are what they feed on.”
His words… not mine. But no matter what the analogy, the point remains clear: there must be a third option that is neither centralized nor decentralized. In this instance, Balkan aims to build a “distributed” topology, where there are no discernable centers. Ind.ie allows users to make these connections amongst themselves and their devices, build their own networks, which then make up what Balkan refers to as the “Indienet”. Those connections never run through a server or any kind of central point, making it a distributed system.
“Our biggest challenge is how do we migrate people from the paradigms that they know without alienating them or making it inconvenient and using the same processes that they’re familiar with,” says Balkan. “In that sense we have to be as focused and design led as possible to build a great consumer product. We have to make this as simple and convenient as possible. You shouldn’t have to care that you’re on this distributed architecture.”
Once the crowdfunding for ind.ie ends on December 10th, the team will launch a private, pre-alpha version of ind.ie at the beginning of 2015 for contributors, running Waystone and Heartbeat. The public beta for ind.ie is set for a June 2015 launch and even further down the road in late 2016, the team will release the ind.ie phone.
“We’re at the very beginning. It’s been a learning process in terms of understanding the effects of things we create on people’s freedoms, and on democracy itself. We’re not just building toys. These devices really fundamentally have the power to effect the society in which we live by their nature. And it comes down to whether you have control of that or whether some company or corporation does.”