March 11, 2019

Doing us a Solid: Tim Berners-Lee’s ‘One Small Step’ to regain control of our personal data

Tim Berners-Lee's open-protocol, free-information playground has become overgrown with the imposing edifices of personal-data-gorging behemoths like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, and he’s not happy about it. The founding father of the internet has become frustrated with the large-scale data reapers, the geopolitical intrusions, and the attempts to compromise net neutrality. Angered by their inability or unwillingness to police themselves, Berners-Lee is calling time on the powers twisting his vision to their own unequitable ends.

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.

       — Tim Berners-Lee

Berners-Lee’s original vision for the Web (then-called Mesh)

Enter Solid (Social Linked Data), an open-source project devised by Berners-Lee and colleagues from MIT designed to restore individual agency within the World Wide Web.  

The Nick of Time

Solid’s arrival is opportune. Recent data abuses like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and, most recently, a data-exposing hack on Google+ that ultimately sounded the death knell for the social media platform have undermined belief in the safety and integrity of personal data and the technopolies who manage it. Mark Zuckerberg invokes his ‘social mission’ of connectedness as a pretext for privacy invasion, Google’s option to "clear all cookies" doesn't include its own, and free VPNs are selling private data to third parties.

The internet, in its current guise, is almost impossible to navigate without divulging personal information.

The original web protocols were limited. They provided the means for browsing and linking but did not include standard solutions for identity, personal data storage, or social applications. The shift from storing our data solely on our personal computers, to moving our data between multiple computers and smart devices means that we rely on the applications storing our data to manage its safety. Our information is siloed in large-scale data centers scattered across the globe and is difficult to migrate easily as different applications manage siloed data differently.

In an ideal world, individuals would have the ability to safely store data on the web so that it can be retrieved easily, shared easily, and just as easily have those sharing permissions revoked. Solid promises to make this dream a reality.

Safe in our PODs

The central tenet of the Solid project is this: the safest means of maintaining and transmitting individual and organizational data is within PODs (Personal Online Data stores). PODs are designed to be secure. The owner has control over the level of data access, if any, they provide to third parties. They can revoke access to their data just as easily as they permitted it. PODs can be stored in the cloud or privately hosted. A DNS-type lookup service with registered WebIDs would enable users to find and access one another's data.

Berners-Lee and his team intend to bolster this POD structure by building a semantic web around it. Common relationships like “friend”,  “name” or “address” could be standardized, POD data would be typed so distributed applications could operate on that data. POD structures would enable us to follow links to friends and then on to their friends without the need for centralized databases., effectively achieving the original intended goal of Facebook.  Because much of the data would be standardized, multiple applications could use the same data.  Enter the data in your POD once and all applications with your permissions can access it from then on. This would also benefit developers, allowing them to build applications without gathering massive amounts of data.

So committed is Berners-Lee to this project that he is taking a break from his role at MIT and reducing his involvement with the World Wide Web Consortium. With the financial backing of Glasswing Ventures, he and former Resilient co-founder John Bruce have spun out a new company, Inrupt, to build commercial products based on the Solid codebase. Speaking about their vision for Inrupt, Bruce explained:

Inrupt’s mission, at this point, is to bring resources, process, and skills to galvanize the open-source effort that Tim was leading out of MIT. We are at the stage of the new web that Tim was at when he first started the World Wide Web.

Re-architecting the Internet

Not everyone agrees that the internet needs saving. Many point to the need to safeguard free-speech at all costs as a reason to take a hands-off approach to data security. Others fear that any structure that Berners-Lee and his colleagues devise would be paternalistic and reductive, pointing out that it is not the place of the internet to make the world safer, merely to enable the open and free access to information.

Solid is entering a space dominated by powerful entities making huge profits harvesting and selling user data. These data deities will not be dethroned easily.

Many others are attempting to re-orient the internet to become more distributed, but Solid is the only one with the imprimatur of the founder of the Internet, lending instant credibility to the Solid mission.

The world we’ve created on the web [is] not the right one. Maybe, just maybe, we can put it in the place it was originally intended to be.

  — John Bruce, co-founder of Inrupt.

Imagine a world where all your applications worked together to conceive of ways to enrich your personal and professional life. That’s the dream the Solid project aims to realize. Sounds good!

But is it too good?