Meet the Troon-based tech firm creating a brand new, safer internet

Alice Muir

A troon-based startup tech firm has created a brand new internet, with privacy, security and freedom at its core

IMAGINE someone told you they could tear-down the internet and effectively start again by providing a brand new version where user privacy was at the core of its vision.

Imagine companies like Google and Facebook were looked at as barriers to information as opposed to content providers. If you can imagine a scenario where you were building two houses side-by-side and wanted to be able to access both houses, you would most likely build a pathway from one house to the other, rather than a tollbooth stopping people without the necessary means of passing.

That’s what Google is. It’s a metaphorical tollbooth which stops people in their tracks and decides what information those people should be given, based on who they are, where they come from and how much money they have.

For example, in China, the information that Google provides is censored by the government and search results manipulated to filter out content the government would rather citizens didn’t see. Meanwhile, commercial companies with large marketing budgets can manipulate the accessibility of information through Google by paying to have their information appear at the top of search results, while cookies are used to store information about users’ online activity which Google then uses to help advertisers target their campaigns towards.

“[The internet, as it currently stands], is actually nonsensical to start with. It’s against everything that I believe in as an engineer.” David Irvine

But now, Maidsafe, a tech startup based in Troon, has created, in effect, internet version two. It’s called the Safe network (secure access for everyone), and it’s exactly that – safe from the exploitation of user data. Safe works on the basic principle that instead of giving your data to companies such as Google and Facebook, who then sell the information to advertisers, users store the data on their own computers.

David Irvine, Founder of Maidsafe

David Irvine, the inventor behind Safe, believes the power of the internet needs to be reclaimed by the people who use it. He believes that it makes no logical sense that internet users have voluntarily handed over their information to be exploited. “[A safer internet] makes more sense,” he explains.

“If you said today, ‘everybody’s computer is connected to everybody else’s computer, how can you let them communicate and store their data?’ The very last thing you would do is invent Google.

“You would not think. ‘I’ll put something in the middle here [to limit the scope of information that can be shared]’. The internet, as it currently stands, is actually nonsensical to start with. It’s against everything that I believe in as an engineer.”  

David Irvine believes that it makes no logical sense that internet users have voluntarily handed over their information to be exploited.

Decentralisation is a concept based on the idea of redistributing power so that the majority of power is not held in a single, central block. Therefore, decentralisation of the internet involves taking the power away from large commercial companies, such as Google, and handing it back to the user base.

The Safe network is crowdsourced, which means that users of the network contribute to the workability of it by donating their unused computer processing power, which is then used to power the network.

It could be said that Safe involves peer-to-peer distribution of information, as opposed to peer-to-business distribution of information, and that’s what makes it different to ‘the internet’ in its current form. “Our focus is privacy, security and freedom,” explains Irvine. “The difference between the Safe network and the current internet is the Safe network would be kind of like the current internet but safe and secure. You start with privacy and then give stuff away if you want to, just like you would as a human. You don’t blurt everything that’s in your brain out.”

“You have to have a system where you are immediately private and immediately secure because then, and only then, can you be free [from exploitation].” David Irvine

“You have to have a system where you are immediately private and immediately secure because then, and only then, can you be free [from exploitation]. On the Safe internet, no data will ever be lost, no data will ever be removed, so if a public piece of data says ‘here’s what we’re doing’, that can never be taken down, it can never be hacked.”

The network has attracted the attention of Marc Andreessen, the founder of internet browser, Netscape, who commented on Twitter, with regards to Maidsafe: “If we could [build the internet] again, this is probably how we would do it.’”

However, one question is pertinent; when so much of the current internet’s resources are free, would users agree to pay for a new internet that gave them control over their information? A poll conducted by Pew Research Centre in early 2015 found that 93 per cent of American adults said that being in control of who can get information about them was important; Seventy-four per cent felt that it was “very important”, while 25 per cent said it was “somewhat important”.

As technology and socio-political expert Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in a New York Times article, “Mark Zuckerberg, Let Me Pay for Facebook”, only 20 cents profit per month is generated per user of Facebook. “I would, as I bet many others would, happily pay more than 20 cents per month for a Facebook or Google that did not track me, upgraded its encryption and treated me as a customer whose preferences and privacy matter,” she wrote.

Tufeckci also pointed out that users are happy to pay a monthly subscription fee upwards of £5 for Netflix, which currently boasts more than 29.4 million users globally, despite the fact that Netflix subscribers could obtain pirated copies of the same films online for free.

Nick Lambert, COO at Maidsafe, explains that in order for websites like Facebook to use the network they would have to introduce a subscription service, as opposed to selling user data to advertisers. He explains that in order to make the network more appealing to users who are reluctant to pay, he wants to demonstrate to them that software can be downloaded and tested in less than 30 seconds on the Safe network. “So we want to make our service 10 times faster and draw people in from that perspective. Not only are we giving them a safer, more secure internet, but we are also giving them a much faster internet.”

“Our focus is privacy, security and freedom.” David Irvine

Developers and contributors to the Safe network have already started building and testing equivalants to Facebook and YouTube, despite the fact the network has not yet launched for public use. One project in particular, Project Decorum, is a decentralised social network platform which has been built specifically for the Safe network. As Irvine explains, “Project Decorum allows things like discoursed blogging systems and forums to exist.” The information about the users held on these forums will be held by the user, as opposed to the forum itself.

See also: Meet Scotland’s digital currency, trading in a pub near you

The team at Maidsafe believes the information economy is the future. “In Scotland so far we’ve lost the coal trade, we’ve lost the steel trade, we’re probably about to lose the oil,” Irvine points out. “[Scotland] could start to be known as a place that you want to be located to do that kind of work in the field of information technology, with the growth of technology startups.

“We’ve got people in this country who have got the skills that you would need right now to do this work but they’ve all been told computers are hard, or they’re a bit crazy or they’re for weirdo people, but then when you look at the world, you realise that actually computers generate trillions and trillions of dollars.”

Picture: CommonSpace and Maidsafe

Video courtesy of Maidsafe

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