How Sir Tim Berners-Lee is returning the Web to the people

How Sir Tim Berners-Lee is returning the Web to the people

As Sir Tim Berners-Lee launches a new initiative, Solid, that aims to reset the connected world in citizens’ favour, Chris Middleton explains what the Web’s originator is doing.


Prime mover of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has long called for two things: data openness and greater respect for personal privacy online. But – as a founding member of the Open Data Institute – he sees no contradiction in those aims.

“I’ve always believed the Web is for everyone,” he wrote in a blog post on 29 September. “That’s why I and others fight fiercely to protect it. The changes we’ve managed to bring have created a better and more connected world. But for all the good we’ve achieved, the Web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas.

“Today, I believe we’ve reached a critical tipping point, and that powerful change for the better is possible – and necessary.”

Since proposing what became the World Wide Web 29 years ago, Berners-Lee has watched his creation become a feudal land filled with powerful data landlords. Their domain over citizens’ private data has seen that data become grist to vast advertising and social engineering mills: Facebook, Google, Amazon, and the rest.

In this world, customers have become the products that organisations sell – often without their knowledge or informed consent. Meanwhile, the apparent end of net neutrality in the US has seen network providers able to throttle access to suit their own commercial aims.

Now Berners-Lee has now proposed a solution to reset the Web back to its founding aims: a startup called ‘inrupt’ and an evolution of the Web infrastructure, known as ‘Solid’. The aim of both is to empower people with their own data, he says – disrupting the system from within.

“Solid changes the current model where users have to hand over personal data to digital giants in exchange for perceived value,” he continued. “As we’ve all discovered, this hasn’t been in our best interests. Solid is how we evolve the Web in order to restore balance – by giving every one of us complete control over data, personal or not, in a revolutionary way”.

So what is it?

Solid PODs

Solid is an open-source platform and framework for application development.

“Solid is a platform, built using the existing Web,” said Berners-Lee. “It gives every user a choice about where data is stored, which specific people and groups can access select elements, and which apps you use. It allows you, your family and colleagues, to link and share data with anyone. It allows people to look at the same data with different apps at the same time.”

It does this via ‘Solid PODs’: a system for storing data of any kind anywhere, which allows complete portability from device to device, and from service to service, with the data owner/subject always in control.

Solid’s website explains, “Within the Solid ecosystem, you decide where you store your data. Photos you take, comments you write, contacts in your address book, calendar events, how many miles you run each day from your fitness tracker… they’re all stored in your Solid POD.

“This Solid POD can be in your house or workplace, or with an online Solid POD provider of your choice. Since you own your data, you’re free to move it at any time, without interruption of service.

“You give people and your apps permission to read or write to parts of your Solid POD. So whenever you’re opening up a new app, you don’t have to fill out your details ever again: they are read from your POD with your permission. Things saved through one app are available in another: you never have to sync, because your data stays with you.”

This approach protects privacy and is also “great for developers”, says the organisation, because they can build apps without harvesting massive amounts of data first. In principle, therefore, the system is a distributed data storage network that can morph into new shapes, depending on users’ wishes.

“Solid unleashes incredible opportunities for creativity, problem-solving and commerce,” continued Berners-Lee in his blog. “It will empower individuals, developers and businesses with entirely new ways to conceive, build, and find innovative, trusted and beneficial applications and services. I see multiple market possibilities, including Solid apps and Solid data storage.

“Imagine if all your current apps talked to each other, collaborating and conceiving ways to enrich and streamline your personal life and business objectives,” he continued. “That’s the kind of innovation, intelligence and creativity that Solid apps will generate.

“With Solid, you will have far more personal agency over data – you decide which apps can access it.”

How we got here

An outspoken supporter of net neutrality, Berners-Lee said in a 2014 speech and subsequent interview with Internet of Business editor Chris Middleton, that the concept of a “platform without attitude, a platform without centre, without permission” and with “no central point of control” was how the World Wide Web was born: an idea he proposed in a memo to colleagues at CERN in 1989.

The original Web server remains at CERN, with a sticky label on it warning people not to switch it off.

Open data is core to the success of a digitally enabled economy, he said in 2014, explaining that the freedom to innovate around open data sets is a superior model to that of corporations owning proprietary, ‘siloed’ data – a practice he described as “boring and dis-enabling”.

“Don’t give me a nice website with visualisations of your data,” he said at UCEXPO that year. “Give me the raw data, so I can merge it with what I want, so I can find out what that data looks like next to this data. That’s open data.”

The privacy conundrum

But he also said, “People say ‘privacy is dead, get over it’. I don’t agree. The idea that privacy is dead is hopeless and sad. We have to build systems that allow for privacy. Think about how you function as a family, as a group, You function by having an information boundary that describes that group. It’s the only way society works, or a family works.”

He added: “I would like control of my data. I own it: you don’t.”

Berners-Lee explained that individuals should own any data that describes them and that private information should never become an asset monetised and traded with no benefit to the individual, or to society. He advocated for people being able to license the commercial use of their data for any purpose that they opt into.

“We turn tracking around,” he said. “Make tracking something that we do to the people who use our data.”

These things are important to get right, he suggested, because of the likely future impact of those decisions in a world that will be governed by artificial intelligence and machine-to-machine communication.

The value of a platform does not lie in what it is, from a proprietary perspective, he argued, but in what it enables people to do. “Opening up the data ‘kimono’, by agreeing to share your data – not publicly, but as part of partnerships – that’s where the future lies.”

Now, four years later, Solid and Inrupt have joined the conversation, and Berners-Lee is stepping back from his other responsibilities – at W3C, and elsewhere – to focus on the initiative, which has been hothoused by him at MIT.

In his blog, Berners-Lee reiterated the point that he made onstage four years earlier. “There is a wave of concern, and related energy, desperate for change. People want to have a Web they can trust. People want apps that help them do what they want and need to do – without spying on them. Apps that don’t have an ulterior motive of distracting them with propositions to buy this or that.”

“People will pay for this kind of quality and assurance,” he continued. “For example, today people pay for storage in places like Dropbox. There is a need for Solid, and the different, beneficial approach it will provide.

“It is going to take a lot of effort to build the new Solid platform and drive broad adoption, but I think we have enough energy to take the world to a new tipping point.”

‘Inrupting’ the status quo

The new organisation behind the project says that it has been quietly building momentum behind the scenes. “For some months, we’ve been working with talented thinkers and doers from around the globe, and distributing resources and workload appropriately,” says inrupt’s website.

“Everyone working on inrupt and Solid is incredibly dedicated to shaping the future of the Web. Thanks to inrupt’s resources, the Solid open-source community is becoming robust, feature-rich and increasingly ready for wide-scale adoption.

“In the Web as we envision it, there are opportunities for everyone. Entirely new businesses, ecosystems and opportunities will surely emerge and thrive. And we’ll need hosting companies, application providers, enterprise consultants, designers and developers. The list goes on. But the real opportunities are all the businesses yet to be invented.”

Internet of Business says

As prime mover of the Web, Berners-Lee is uniquely positioned to see how far it has drifted from his founding vision of a shared, deep-knowledge resource, linking data source with data source, and towards an advertising-fuelled space full of commercial real estate, surface noise, and covert connections.

Under GDPR, anyone given the opportunity (by some websites) to opt out of different sharing options for their data – rather than simply clicking ‘I Agree’ – is presented with the vast number of advertising and marketing affiliates that lurk behind every click and Like.

While some commercial organisations, such as IBM, position themselves as arbiters of trust, rather than data ownership, and while blockchain programmes have made progress towards managing digital identity, transparency, and authentication – if not towards energy efficiency and reduced complexity – the Web remains largely in the control of powerful data landlords. In China, that landlord is the government.

A number of solutions have been proposed in recent years: the personal API, for example, has long been one of the most promising, in Internet of Business’ view. A platform through which individuals can manage permissions and support for whatever causes or services they are happy to support – citizen-backed CSR, with each individual being rewarded for allowing their data to be used.

By creating the POD concept – a portable, personal container of data – Berners-Lee has adopted some of the principles behind that idea, while weaving it into the fabric of the Web. But has storage been the real issue? In a sense, yes, in that possession is nine tenths of the law, even in a virtual world, and mobility is often impossible.

But policy and transparency have been equally flawed, and in a world in which data is valued by the speed at which it moves, Ts and Cs often pass by in a blur.

The big challenge for Solid is acceptance, standardisation, and mass adoption, but those are things that Sir Tim Berners-Lee knows more about than most. So disrupting the infrastructure from within may be the only long-term solution – however long it takes.

As inrupt says, “The future is still so much bigger than the past.”

Plus: California signs net neutrality act

In related news from the US, California – home to Silicon Valley and much of the US technology sector – signed the country’s toughest net neutrality rules into law late night on 30 September.

As with California’s data privacy act, the unspoken aim is for the rules to become a de facto US standard, setting the state on a collision course with the Trump administration, which abandoned net neutrality earlier this year.

The move drew an immediate response from attorney general Jeff Sessions: a lawsuit, plus a statement saying, “States do not regulate interstate commerce, the federal government does.”

Meanwhile, in further US news, Facebook could face a fine of $1.6 billion for the data breach reported last week, which compromised the data of more than 50 million accounts.