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The Alternative Internet Where You're in Control of Your Data

"The Alternet" is one designer's vision of a civic internet that's private and transparent at the same time.

The internet runs on a data economy: There's no such thing as a free service, and you can bet the true price will be outlined in that lengthy privacy agreement you never read. Designer Sarah Gold proposes an alternative—a civic network that gives users full control over what they share. She calls it "the Alternet."

The Alternet isn't anonymous, but it is as private as you want it to be. Gold wasn't interested in making another dark net; her network is not really about secrecy but about controlled data-sharing. 

"The Alternet is this idea about transparency with your data—you're not trying to hide your data, it is actually pro-sharing," she said. She wanted it to be user-friendly, noting that getting on to the dark net made her feel like she was "becoming a hacker."

To this end, she speaks of the Alternet in terms of data ownership rather than privacy. Even if you don't require anonymity, you probably want some say in how your personal data is used. When people respond that they have nothing to hide, Gold asks, "Do you have curtains on your bedroom window?"

Image: Lynton Pepper

Gold started work on the Alternet as part of her final project at Central Saint Martins, and was largely inspired by the Snowden revelations and controversial NHS data initiatives. She was also motivated by her work on the open-source WikiHouse project, which is where I first met Gold and heard about her Alternet designs. She's giving a talk on the project at the Web We Want festival at London's Southbank Centre this weekend.

Gold initially envisaged the Alternet as an autonomous mesh network with end-to-end encryption, but she's now considering how it might fit into the existing internet structure. To start, you'd download the software for your router, perhaps along with plans for 3D printing the router box itself to perhaps fit with skirting boards or cornicing rather than stick out as an ugly cuboid.

The mesh network relies on a certain sense of civic duty. "You powering that router enables you to connect to other people's Alternet mesh network routers as well, so you kind of make this community cloud network," explained Gold.

The idea is that you have complete choice and control as a citizen of this network

The main feature of the Alternet concept is a set of customisable data licenses. Inspired by Creative Commons licenses, these are intended to replace all privacy policies. It's a simple system: as a user, you answer a simple set of questions to decide the constraints on each type of your personal data. So you might say your location data could be accessed by everyone, but only for noncommercial purposes. Or you might say you don't want to share your biometric data at all.

Image: Sarah Gold

They're purposefully straightforward, and a welcome tonic to the usual terms and conditions you get on registering for a new service. To Gold, the licenses are more a design question than a technical challenge. 

"The idea is that you do have complete choice and control as a citizen of this network, so it's really important that the design encourages that and it doesn't nudge you, it doesn't limit you," she said.

The apps you can access then adjust to the data licenses you have in place, but you don't have to do the negotiating each time you want to use something new. An "eButler" deals with that. Meanwhile a "data barometer" gives a constant snapshot of who's using your data at any point.

Of course, there's one problem with undermining the data economy: much as we might find the arrangement disagreeable, the companies that profit from our data provide a useful service in return. A new data sharing model would require a new business model. Gold suggested a potential for existing alternative models to expand, such as those based on advertising (which are currently data-driven on their own, adding another thing to sort out), subscriptions, and donations.

Image: Sarah Gold

She doesn't think it's a good idea for companies to just pay individuals for their data. "If we were to go into a payment system, we don't really have the infrastructure in place yet to stop any competition-based underpricing for data payouts," she said. Accepting the highest offer isn't the same as addressing the actual question of data ownership.

It all sounds great in theory, though Gold acknowledges that for a real net-alternative to work it'd need a critical mass of users. But having recently won a Design Council Future Pioneers award, she is expanding the project beyond its academic beginnings and wants to see it fully realised in some way. 

"I certainly can see it, and I hope it happens, because I think we really need a fair-trade alternative to what we have now," she said.

It could evolve as a service layer for the Internet of Things, perhaps, or a badge system for services that don't take your data. Whatever the end design, the fundamental goal is a shift towards greater individual control—"from being really quite a disempowered consumer of the internet, for instance, to actually a citizen of the network."