The ad-free Ello, known as the anti-Facebook social network, is the latest startup to go viral, capitalising on public concern about how personal data is being used and registering an astonishing 40,000 sign-up requests per hour. Ello’s dizzying rise is indicative of broader public sentiment towards the Googles and Facebooks of this world – internet users are fed up of having their personal data taken for granted and are now doing something about it.
Emerging technology startups have responded to privacy concerns by building user-friendly products in areas such as social media, analytics and online search. Ello is just one example in social media, but already questions have been asked whether companies like Ello can be financially viable in the long term if they can’t sell user data to sell ads.
Paul Budnitz, co-founder of Ello, believes users will pay extra for certain features on top of the basic Ello services: “We have thousands of people writing in requesting features they would be willing to pay for. Buying a feature now and then for a few dollars is a great way to support an ad-free network.”
It may seem crazy to go head to head with tech giant like Facebook offering a free service, but there is plenty of inspiration out there. Consider Piwik, for example, the alternative open source alternative to (the free) Google Analytics which puts users in control of their data, never shares data with other servers and never sells data for ad targeting. While the Piwik platform is also free, users pay for extra services such as enterprise-level analytics consultancy or cloud hosting from Piwik PRO.
In another case of David versus Goliath, DuckDuckGo is going head to head with Google in online search. The search engine doesn’t collect IP addresses, track your searches and it provides effective search results. It exploded in popularity in 2013 following the revelations about NSA mass surveillance.
Arguably, the centralised nature of the internet today is one of the largest threats to our privacy. The internet as we know it is centralised, meaning that a staggering amount of the data flows through a small number of corporations, such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo. Google, for example, accounts for around 40% of all internet traffic.
With data flow contained by this centralised nature of the internet, our privacy and the security of businesses is constantly at risk, especially when the companies holding our data sell it to the adtech industry or to any bidder from the ad tech industry and are under pressure to share it with organisations like NSA and GCHQ.
One solution to this is to make the internet more like it used to be – less centralised and more distributed. Diaspora is a decentralised social network offering an alternative to Facebook that is growing in popularity. It has no central base but servers called ‘pods’ around the world, each containing the data of those users registered with it.
To spread the security risk and protect privacy, people are opting to store data on proprietary infrastructure (as opposed to Dropbox, for example). Decentralised peer-to-peer payment methods like Bitcoin are also growing in popularity. Innovation in messaging systems is also reflecting what is happening in payments, for example BitTorrent’s Bleep is a recently released decentralised messaging system.
The blockchain technology which started cryptocurrencies (especially Bitcoin) has the potential to disrupt and decentralise the whole internet too. Marc Andreessen, co-founder of the $4.2 billion venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, recently threw his weight behind the disruptive potential decentralised cryptocurrency system: “The startups chasing disruptive technology aren’t working within the existing system. This is the cryptocurrency phenomenon. If it works, we can re-implement the entire financial system as a distributed system as opposed to a centralized system. We can reinvent the entire thing.”
Properly implemented cryptography, decentralised payments and self-hosted solutions will help protect security online and keep data safe from the prying eyes. However, it is tricky to make this as easy-to-use as a Gmail account or paying with your normal credit card, so generating mainstream adoption is a challenge.
One campaign leading the charge to raise awareness of the dangers of a centralized internet is Redecentralize.org. As privacy concerns grow, more and more people are listening to what they have to say and moving data away from the central players, choosing not to rely on services like Facebook, Google Analytics, iCloud and Dropbox.
This also applies to businesses too: according to a recent Piwik survey, 46% of businesses say that respecting user privacy is business-critical and are therefore turning to alternative, privacy-friendly services. However: according to the survey, only 18% of businesses say that there are currently sufficient web-tools available to protect user privacy as they need to. Clearly there is a huge market opportunity here and much work to be done.