The emergence of an alternative internet

Wow, 2020 was quite the year! Not just because of the pandemic that stopped the offline world, but because of some of the terrifying things that rocked our online world as well.

These are the ones that disturbed me the most:

  • The docudrama "The Social Dilemma," which opened our eyes to how large social media companies manipulate people online
  • The astounding number of data breaches (here are just the top ten)
  • The amazing changes in privacy policies at the end of the year that made me delete Instagram from my phone (I deleted it because I didn’t want Instagram to have access to everything on my phone, but the most outrageous part to me was "you can’t use a domain name or URL in your username without prior written consent")
  • The unprecedented political censorship on social channels
  • Those annoying cookie popups (is an open admission that you are surveilling me, and I must accept this or I can’t browse your site supposed to make me feel better about privacy?)

I hear all the time, "But what can I do?" or "I know Facebook is evil, but that’s where all my family and friends are." But that attitude is rapidly shifting, as indicated by a recent study from Consumer Reports’ Digital Lab with support from Omidyar Network. According to the study, American consumers have grown more concerned about privacy and data security, and an overwhelming 96 percent of Americans agree that more should be done to protect consumer privacy. Maybe this comes from being locked up in our homes for most of the year, but I am feeling public opinion shift from apathy to outrage.

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Luckily, in 2020 there were many companies working hard in the background to provide alternative models that are not reliant on surveillance or using your data as its product. In 2021, we should see a whole new alternative Internet emerging, including alternative search, browsers, email, chat, productivity, payments, and adtech. By 2025 we will look back and laugh at 2020 and wonder how we let companies own our digital selves for as long as we did.

Here’s where I’ve seen some of the most interesting alternatives to the current model of large companies owning all your data:

Phones

Let’s start with the core of the problem -- the phone. Apple and Google have a duopoly on the phone market, keeping your most intimate data in their databases. Well, now you can get de-Googled phones. The e.foundation has been offering the first of such phones this year. Also, keep your eye out in 2021 for phones from OSOM. These phones will not surveil all your data for their own purposes.

Messaging

Signal and Telegram led the way in 2020 for private messaging by offering end-to-end encryption. Whatsapp has end-to-end encryption, but Facebook (the owner of Whatsapp) still knows who you are talking to and when you are talking to them.

Signal and Telegram are just the start. In 2021, the next generation of messaging apps will allow you to actually remove your messages from someone else’s phone. Soon your messages will always belong solely to you.

File Sharing

This one is a personal frustration for me, especially in 2020 when I couldn’t sit down with my tax accountant and hand him a flash drive. I was forced to use Dropbox, which I personally don’t feel comfortable with because Dropbox holds the keys to my data.

But 2021 will bring us true peer-to-peer file sharing, where completely encrypted files can be transmitted from person to person without being stored forever on a server in the cloud.  The next generation of file sharing will be much like the future of messaging mentioned above. 2021 file sharing apps will have a feature that will let you take back any file that you share. Built in digital rights management will ensure that people can be "loaned" files for a period of time, and that the access control will remain in the hands of the owner of the file. This will open the floodgates for true online content ownership and address copyright issues, which have workarounds but no foundational solution.  It will also enable us to determine when our photos and content have been doctored.

Location Sharing

This is especially sensitive to people in 2020 who don’t feel confident that the government is tracing us with our Google or Apple phones to "protect" us. Big Tech has had to negotiate between supplying location data needed for Covid contact-tracing and respecting consumer privacy. In 2021, you will be able to share your location privately with family and friends and opt into sharing location data with other entities, if asked.

Contact Data

Have you ever wanted to remove your contact data from someone else’s phone? This actually happened to me last month, when a friend of a friend who had my contact information started to get a little creepy. I wanted to do more than just block his texts and emails; I wanted him to, literally, lose my number. In 2021 we will see contact apps that let you control access to your information. I want my entire family to have my home address, but for casual acquaintances, just an email address will do. When I change my address, I don’t want to have to notify everyone, I just want them to automatically have my new address. And I want to retract my contact information from people I don’t want contacting me. I can’t wait to wield this type of control over my contact information.

Social Media

In 2020 we started to see the rise in private social media sites built on the likes of Mastodon. Then as the year progressed, and conservatives found themselves censored on YouTube and Facebook, they started turning to sites like Parler, which claims to verify the identification of the people it allows on their social network and not to censor people. I believe this trend will continue in 2021 and social media sites will allow more nuanced categorization of people into ad hoc groups instead of just "followers" and "friends." These "groups" can be used across multiple apps, making them far more interesting, useful, and fun.

Existing Data

Currently your data is spread all over the Internet, at more companies than you even remember. Fortunately, there are new companies being created that help you take that data back from all those sites. In 2020 Mine announced that they can figure out which companies have your data, how potentially vulnerable your data is, and how to take it back and remove it from those company servers. As these services expand in 2021, many companies will see a devaluation of their mass data stores, and may be forced to turn to different business models.

Future Apps

When you have true privacy and the ability to take information back, new exciting apps will emerge in this space. We have our eye on a voting app that lets you take polls amongst your friends with both privacy and anonymity.

I believe that we will see an attestation model of trust emerge in 2021, where established data sources will, in effect, vouch for one’s identity or personal information without disclosing personal data. It already exists in processes such as confirming credit scores, but imagine what would happen if friends and co-workers could attest for each other.

If we could combine this attestation capability with social media, we’d be able to verify people’s identities, allowing you to feel more comfortable and confident connecting to people online.

Increased Regulation

The GDPR (Europe's General Data Protection Regulation) and the CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act) increased regulation around privacy in 2020 and in 2021 we will see more states enact privacy legislation. But just as important, we will see technology advances that will support and enforce this legislation. This technology will provide you with the power to prevent, and legally pursue in court, companies and bad actors who do not treat your data on your terms and conditions.  When you have withdrawn your data and disabled access, any person or company who has kept a copy has committed theft. Due to the changed nature of data ownership, these parties can be held responsible in court.

Photo Credit: sdecoret/ Shutterstock

Barbara Tallent is Co-founder and CEO of The @ Company. Her job is to make sure everyone is having fun. Fun is contagious and it spreads to the company's developers and throughout the community. She loves that at The @ Company, it's not only giving people privacy, it is also giving them fun new experiences on the internet. It is changing the world, one @sign at a time. Her hobbies are dog agility, cooking, and gardening -- at least, they were before she started The @ Company. Now she barely has time to feed herself and the dogs, and didn’t notice how overgrown her garden was until it took out her internet cable!

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