The Internet may be approaching 3 billion users. But arguably its founding principles have never been more under threat. From NSA surveillance, to the end of “net neutrality,” to assaults on privacy by data miners and their clients: there are many deviations from the original vision of a free-flowing, unmediated network for all.
In this context, the Knight Foundation’s latest challenge–which calls for ways to “strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation”–seems well timed.
“There is a danger that people think it takes care of itself,” says Michael Maness, Knight’s VP of journalism and media innovation. “We wanted to build awareness around what the Internet does, and issues like access to the Internet, or censorship, or surveillance. These are all issues we feel need to be part of a dialogue.”
In March’s first round, Knight received 653 ideas. Now it’s down to 54 final entries, and “refinement” and “evaluation” stages. The winners, which get a total of $2.75 million in grants, will be announced at MIT in June. We picked out a few of the most promising ideas:
Several entries aim to improve communication security. Briar, for example is “a messaging app that’s as simple to use as WhatsApp, as secure as PGP.” It “keeps working if somebody breaks the Internet,” explain its creators. TextSecure is an open source encrypted chat system. Trsst is an online blogging platform that protects users’ identities, and prevents surveillance and censorship.
To ensure “the Internet evolves in a citizen-centric manner,” Rebecca MacKinnon wants to hold the “sovereigns of the Internet” accountable. By that she means not governments, but technology companies whose interests are not necessarily aligned with the public interest. Her solution is a ranking or index “that will score companies on what they are (and aren’t) doing to respect free expression and privacy.”
The Open Notice Initiative is creating a market “where companies compete on privacy, before consent is given.” It wants simpler, more “modular” privacy consents that allow consumers to comparison shop. Maness says: “It’s a powerful idea that if you go on the web, you know everything that is gathered about you. You know what the information is because there’s a contract.”
Several projects open up hidden Internet processes. For example, this map of “data barons” and their interactions with client companies that use data for advertising. Another: of Internet, satellite, and cable “gate-keepers” in Eastern Europe.
Outernet is a system of miniature low-orbit satellites that broadcasts free to any computer on the planet. It’s like shortwave radio, or “BitTorrent from space.”
“Outernet bypasses censorship, ensures privacy, and offers a universal information service at no cost to global citizens,” explains the submission.
“[Outernet]’s one those moments that feels almost science fiction-y, but is potentially there,” says Maness. “But as time goes on, citizens can maybe control those types of approaches.”