World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee has called for the re-opening of the web in order to “empower” users.
Speaking at the Reuters NEXT virtual conference, Berners-Lee shared details of his latest venture, Inrupt. Since 2015, he has been working on a new web infrastructure called Solid, or SOcial LInked Data, a web decentralisation project developed with MIT that “aims to radically change the way web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy”.
Solid sees data stored in decentralised data stores called Pods, with users able to decide which apps running on the solid platform can access their data.
This is intended to give users more control over their data, but it also aims to end the siloed nature of today’s web. As such, the Solid Project is focusing on interoperability and creating a single sign-on for any online service.
Berners-Lee explained that this was the original intention for the World Wide Web:
“What I wanted to do was to build a big collaborative space in which everybody could read and write, and everybody could have a webpage and every company could have their products on the web and everything could be linked together to be very efficient. To a certain extent, it was great that the web took off. I could’ve never imagined that we would get so much stuff on it.”
However, he believes that the web has changed significantly since its “golden age”:
“For ten years or so it was exciting because it looked like it would be a place to break down international barriers and it would allow each person to be their own independent self.
“There was a golden age. People talked about the long tail when they said that most of the value on the web is from all of the small people. Isn’t that amazing? When you multiply it there are so many small, medium-sized websites out there. The value we get out of it is just more than anybody imagined. But if you talk to a millennial now, they don’t recognise that as the web they have right now. It’s ironic as they spend all their time on the same social network. They are in fact within a silo being constrained by the capacity of a particular social network, just like AOL in a way.”
Tim Berners-Lee: “It’s not the privacy, it’s a lack of empowerment”
Berners-Lee has long been vocal about the shortcomings of today’s web, publishing an open letter in 2019 describing how the internet has “created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit”.
In 2018, he co-founded Inrupt, an enterprise version of Solid that allows organisations to build applications for the platform.
According to Inrupt co-founder and CEO John Bruce, the NHS, the BBC and the government of Flanders in Belgium are all Inrupt pilot customers.
Berners-Lee hopes that Inrupt will help change the siloed nature of today’s web while encouraging innovation:
“We don’t have a single global sign-on and worldwide identity for people and so as a result of not having that single sign-on for the web we don’t have a global identity. If I want to share a picture on one social network with a group on another social network I can’t. I’ve got these siloes. But what if we extended the web and we said actually groups and logins are going to be global. They’re going to be a standard web thing. Anybody can log into anything with anything.”
“Solid protocol is simple. It allows you to write any data you like so you can write an app. You can decide ‘I’m going to write an app to help people organise scout camps”’ or whatever is the flavour of the week for you. You can write the app and put it out there on the web as open-source software and you can go to sleep and while you’re asleep other people, if they like it, they’ll start using it and as it runs it will connect up to their Pods.”
When asked whether social media giants such as Facebook and Google would ever be on board with a platform such as Solid, Berners-Lee is optimistic:
“Probably if we ended up making all of those sign-ons compatible so that you could sign in with Solid and that would allow you to have your identity work just as well on [Facebook and Google] I think that they’d go along with that. A lot of people missed the data transfer project where Facebook and Twitter and Google and Microsoft and now Apple have all said with the data transfer project we promise to give you the ability to move your stuff. Your photos, your contacts and so on between platforms. The data transfer project in a way was a massive stake in the sand saying we realise you own your data and you’ve got to be able to use it between platforms.”
In recent years, Big Tech has been met with increasing scrutiny when it comes to antitrust, as well as tighter regulations when it comes to user data, such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Berners-Lee believes that the growing awareness of how data is being used online from both the general public and regulators could be beneficial to projects such as Solid:
“People who run platforms they know the existing regulation, they know there’s a public push. The public is getting fed up with certain things. They’re getting fed up of a lack of control, with silos. It’s not the privacy, it’s a lack of empowerment.”
“It’ll be helped by the fact that GDPR is a thing and other things will tend to follow GDPR as privacy legislation and the fact Solid is there will make it easier for people introducing things like GDPR, because they can say look, this is soluble. All you have to do is be Solid compatible and you’ve checked the GDPR box largely.”