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<p>The office planner on the wall features two reminders: “Technosocialism” and “Indienet institute”. A huge husky named Oskar lies near the door, while the two people who live and work here – a plain apartment block on the west side of Malmö, Sweden – go about their daily business.</p>
<p>Aral Balkan and Laura Kalbag moved here from Brighton in 2015. Balkan has Turkish and French citizenship, and says their decision was sparked by two things: increasing concerns about the possibility of Britain leaving the EU, and the Conservative government’s Investigatory Powers Act, otherwise known as the snoopers’ charter, some of which was declared unlawful this week by the court of appeal. The legislation cut straight to the heart of what now defines the couple’s public lives: the mesh of corporate and government surveillance surrounding the internet, and how to do something about it.</p>
<p>Kalbag, 31, is from Surrey, has a web design background and says she’s “always been a very socially minded, troublemaking kind of person”. Balkan, 41, traces what he does now to his experiences as a small child, designing his own games for a personal computer. It was “the last time when we actually owned and controlled our computers – there wasn’t some corporation somewhere watching everything we were doing, storing it and monetising it.”</p>
<p>Now, they style themselves as “a two-person-and-one-husky social enterprise striving for social justice in the digital age”.</p>
<img src='/6029.jpg' alt='From left-to-right: Oskar, Aral, and Laura sitting in their office in Malmö with computer screens and a red filing cabinate and a red anglepoise lamp in the background.'>
<figcaption>Aral Balkan and Laura Kalbag with their husky, Oskar. Photograph: Lars Dareberg/Getty for the Guardian</figcaption>
<h2>A scattered revolt</h2>
<p>Balkan and Kalbag form one small part of a fragmented rebellion whose prime movers tend to be located a long way from Silicon Valley. These people often talk in withering terms about Big Tech titans such as Mark Zuckerberg, and pay glowing tribute to Edward Snowden. Their politics vary, but they all have a deep dislike of large concentrations of power and a belief in the kind of egalitarian, pluralistic ideas they say the internet initially embodied.</p>
<p>What they are doing could be seen as the online world’s equivalent of punk rock: a scattered revolt against an industry that many now think has grown greedy, intrusive and arrogant – as well as governments whose surveillance programmes have fuelled the same anxieties. As concerns grow about an online realm dominated by a few huge corporations, everyone involved shares one common goal: a comprehensively decentralised internet.</p>
<p>Balkan energetically travels the world, delivering TED-esque talks with such titles as “Free is a Lie” and “Avoiding Digital Feudalism”. His appearances have proliferated on YouTube, although he himself uses an online video player that doesn’t harvest personal data. (“If there’s a free and open, decentralised and usable alternative, we try to use it,” he says – he favours, for example, the privacy-respecting search engine DuckDuckGo over Google.) At the same time, he and Kalbag are on a painstaking journey that involves ideas and prototypes aimed at creating a new kind of digital life.</p>
<p>Back in 2014, they came up with a plan for the Indiephone, “a beautiful new mobile platform and a phone that empowers regular people to own their own data”. “One of my mistakes was, I told people about it,” says Balkan. “And then we realised there was no way we could finance it.” Assisted by around £100,000 in crowdfunding, they started work on a new kind of social network, called Heartbeat, whose users would hold on to their data, and communicate privately. Since then, they have launched an app for iPhone and Macs called Better Blocker, purchased by about 14,000 people, and with a simple function: in a much more thorough way than most adblocking software, it disables the endless tracking devices that now follow people as they move around the web.</p>
<p>In the last few months, they have started working with people in the Belgian city of Ghent – or, in Flemish, Gent – where the authorities own their own internet domain, complete with .gent web addresses. Using the blueprint of Heartbeat, they want to create a new kind of internet they call the indienet – in which people control their data, are not tracked and each own an equal space online. This would be a radical alternative to what we have now: giant “supernodes” that have made a few men in northern California unimaginable amounts of money thanks to the ocean of lucrative personal information billions of people hand over in exchange for their services.</p>
<p>“I got into the web because I liked the democracy of it,” says Kalbag, who has just published a book titled Accessibility for Everyone, about innovating in a way that includes those who technology too often ignores – not least people with disabilities. “I want to be able to be in a society where I have control over my information, and other people do as well. Being a woman in technology, you can see how hideously unequal things are and how people building these systems don’t care about anyone other than themselves. I think we have to have technology that serves everybody – not just rich, straight, white guys.”</p>
<p>Back in Malmö, Balkan recalls that Zuckerberg put out a new year statement in which he tried to sound a note of sympathy with people who have grown sick of an online world controlled by a few big players. “In the 1990s and 2000s, most people believed technology would be a decentralising force,” Zuckerberg wrote. “But today, many people have lost faith in that promise. With the rise of a small number of big tech companies – and governments using technology to watch their citizens – many people now believe technology only centralises power rather than decentralises it.” He mentioned encryption and cryptocurrencies, and said he was “interested to go deeper and study the positive and negative aspects of these technologies and how best to use them in our services”.</p>
<p>Balkan marvels. “How does that work with a huge entity like Facebook, that just sucks power up?” he asks. “It’s absolute spin.”</p>
<p>He and Kalbag have much more modest ambitions, and that, he says, is the whole point: if we want a more diverse, open, decentralised internet, developers are going to have to wave goodbye to the idea of huge platforms that will supposedly make them rich.</p>
<p>“We’ve kind of been brainwashed into this Silicon Valley idea of success,” he says. “You know: ‘Unless you’ve made a billion dollars and you’re on the cover of Forbes magazine as the next king, you’re not successful.’ With our projects, no one’s going to make a billion dollars if we’re successful – not me, not Laura, not anyone.”</p>
<p>He drains the last of his coffee and checks his phone. “And if we do, you’ll know something’s gone wrong. We’ll have screwed up.”</p>
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