Thirty years ago today, Tim Berners-Lee, then a research fellow at physics laboratory CERN, issued a proposal, titled “Information Management: A Proposal”. This would go on to be the basis of the World Wide Web.
Described by Berners-Lee’s supervisor at the time as “vague, but exciting” it is safe to say that the impact of the web on the modern era could not have been predicted.
Though it started out as a means of information-sharing between scientists around the world, the global interactive interface was essentially a way to write and transmit information across a network of computers, making accessing the internet possible for all.
However, 30 years since this utopian version of an open internet, the web of today is far from what Berners-Lee envisioned. With tech giants dominating the online world, powered by reams of data, and having the ability to influence everything from political events to news reporting, the World Wide Web inventor is now a well-known critic of his own creation.
The view from the World Wide Web inventor
In an open letter published yesterday, Berners-Lee writes that although the World Wide Web has “created opportunity, given marginalised groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier”, it has also given a platform for the negative aspects of society, and has “created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit”.
He sees three main problems affecting today’s web: deliberate, malicious intent such as hacking and online harassment, system design that creates perverse incentives such as ad-based revenue and unintended negative consequences of benevolent design such as fake news.
To combat these, Berners-Lee believes that the way the web operates needs to be rethought, and fast. But has the World Wide Web become a Pandora’s box? And once its contents are out in the world, it is ever possible to take them back again?
With the original vision for a decentralised web now undermined by the sheer scale and influence of the likes of Facebook and Google, the World Wide Web inventor now wants to fix it.
Since 2015, he has been working on a new web infrastructure called Solid, or SOcial LInked Data, which rethinks how websites treat personal data. This is just one of a number of decentralised platforms that have emerged as a reaction to the internet’s current data-handling methods, but the backing of the founder of the web certainly makes Solid stand out from the crowd.
What is Solid?
Rather than companies such as Facebook and Google having the ability to store and share user data, Solid proposes separating websites from the data generated when users interact with them.
A website running using Solid would allow users to decide where their data is stored instead of companies owning it. This means that users have the ability to decide which companies have access to it.
In other words, it would be up to users, not companies, to store their own data on their own servers known as Personal Online Data Stores, or PODs.
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According to Wired, this could mean that individuals could take control of their data, running AI products across their personal data if they wanted as well as reducing the risk of data stored on a centralised databases from being stolen. It would also encourage innovation as rather than individual companies being the gatekeepers of users’ data, it would be available to smaller developers to create new products.
Believing that it is “defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30 [years]”, Berners-Lee is optimistic that Solid could change the web for the better. But is this too good to be true?
Could a decentralised internet work?
Arne Peder Blix, CEO and co-founder of Friend, an internet-based operating system, believes that the public reaction to events such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal could be enough to bring about change:
“We owe the next generation something better than monopolies that control access to information. While it is not too late, the battle is continuous. The current legal framework is struggling to keep up with technology companies, but the more legislation that is passed, the more that these companies will go underground and shirk away from much-needed transparency.
“Society is beginning to wake up to these wrongdoings, but as more and more people come online, the centralisation of power becomes easier and this is a big problem. The antidote to this is an open-source model whereby choice is returned to the individual. In today’s world, privacy is the marker of freedom and there are no varying degrees of privacy —you either have it or you don’t.”
However, challenging the monopoly of internet giants is no easy task. User data, and its value to advertisers, is the most important asset for the likes of Facebook and Google and they are unlikely to want to give it up. Instead, the success of alternative social media websites that run on decentralised platforms, and enough privacy-conscious consumers making the switch, would be needed to make Solid a competitor.
Could the law be used to change the web for the better?
Another avenue is legislation. The introduction of GDPR last year demonstrated that legislative change can go some way to limiting the data practices of organisations, if building web apps on decentralised platforms such as Solid became law, then Berners-Lee’s vision for a “re-decentralised” web has a chance of taking off. However, first proposed in 2012, GDPR took a number of years to come into force, so this may be a long way off.
The regulation of tech giants by government bodies is gaining traction, with both the House of Lords and House of Commons proposing codes of conduct designed to reign in tech giants, and Senator Elizabeth Warren pledging to “break up” big tech if she is elected as US president.
World Wide Web inventor Berners-Lee has launched a “contract for the web”, in which companies would have an obligation to respect consumers’ privacy and personal data and put public good first.
However, popular science writer and author of Big Data: How the Information Revolution Is Transforming Our Lives, Brian Clegg believes that the practicalities of users storing their own data are a major hurdle for Solid:
“Would people do it? is the key. It would be hard to persuade the majority of non-tech savvy people to use Solid-based architectures unless there was some other, more directly obvious benefit. What the likes of Tim Berners Lee, with their huge computing resources, and tendency not to use off-the-shelf software, tend to forget is that most of us have far less available to us, and we want to stick with familiar standards.
“So, for instance, most people would not want to host PODs in their home, both because they don’t have fast enough internet access to be able to get to it anywhere and because it would be much easier for the storage to be physically damaged/lost in a domestic environment – so it would have to be hosted by a cloud provider they could trust. And they would want to be able to use, say Microsoft Office, or the apps on their phone to access that data – so current front end software would have to be modified to support it.”
He believes that until users can see a tangible advantage to switching to systems like Solid, it will be difficult for them to take off:
“In itself the benefits of using Solid are probably not direct and personal enough for most users to care too much, so there would have to be added value provided in some way.”