The dark web is famous for keeping criminals anonymous and being used to trade drugs on forums like Silk Road using cryptocurrency. Soon there will be an alternative to the standard web, with its privacy pitfalls, that promises to protect your data in a similar fashion. The SAFE Network from Scottish firm Maidsafe could even be an alternative to traditional government by bringing transparency and decision-making powers to everyone.

The dark web uses Tor, an encrypted technology that gives users anonymity in part by routing connections through servers around the world, making the users harder to track and identify. In this way, it automatically protects the user from everyone, including those who might have a legitimate or helpful purpose, in knowing more about them.

On the other side, the SAFE Network has a focus on protecting data when you need it, from the apps and tech giants, like Facebook, who time and again have sold or leaked our data for commercial and political purposes.

The SAFE Network says it will protect, and even bring the internet within the control of, the people.

How does the SAFE Network work?

It works by scattering encrypted ‘chunks’ of data across all the nodes or devices that are within the network. The pieces of the puzzle reform when a single correct password is implemented, giving access to the SAFE Network software.

As well as offering privacy, the network remunerates its users for being part of the project in a cryptocurrency, SAFEcoin, which you can use to pay the one-off charge when you first download the software.

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SAFEcoin is also distributed to the apps which are used through the SAFE network software, such as Ticketmaster. Apps that are more popular gain a bigger share of the coin, as more users access its data.

A user chooses whether to share their personal data, and to what extent, with each app according to what they need. And people may welcome apps that track their searches of say cars, if they want tailored advertising to show them alternative suggestions in a purchase.

It requires a culture change, which starts with the growing awareness that the ‘free’ internet, as we once thought it was, runs on cash from advertising and data harvesting.

The movement to a personally-controllable web could spell the end of online advertising and its advancements using advertising tech. But will anyone mourn its loss and would it just adapt to serve its users’ needs better?

Google and its trouble with privacy

Google was found a short while ago to be labelling internet users through routine adtech infrastructure that tracked interests and searches within sensitive categories such as substance abuse, right-wing politics, STIs and mental health, and delivered targeted campaigns that anyone could see on say their office browser.

SAFE Network founder David Irvine foresaw this problem, he told the Guardian, “As the internet was starting, it was clear to me straight away that it would centralise around several large companies and they would basically control the world.”

About the dark web comparison with the SAFE Network, Irvine said, “We’re not enabling them. We’re enabling everybody else.”

It’s a kind of liberation, but then government-based regulation is also trying to solve the problem of privacy on the internet.

However, the SAFE Network offers a revolutionary solution, it even provides a way to bring government into the hands of the people. Nick Lambert, chief operating officer at Maidsafe told Verdict that one developer created an app called Devolution that provides a new way to govern. He explained that it could “be used to manage an entire country on a decentralised network, in terms of health credits and things like that”.

A decentralised solution?

The SAFE Network is in alpha two phase at the moment, with 200 nodes, up to 1,500 people accepting invitations to use the network and 17,000 sessions enabled over 16 months. Lambert says: “It’s pretty stable, and the next step is to start decentralising it.”

But perhaps ominously, founder Irvine added there’d be no way to shut down this version of an anonymous and autonomous web. He said: “We can’t stop the network if we start it. If anyone turned around and said: ‘You need to stop that,’ we couldn’t. We’d have to go round to people’s houses and switch off their computers.”

That puts us between the current threat of an internet that we can’t yet control and another kind of internet that we wouldn’t be able to stop.

Read more: Tim Berners-Lee unveils plan to ‘fix the web’