For Tim Berners-Lee the past is prologue, and not a very good one at that.
Several months ago I had the chance to sit down to dinner with Tim Berners-Lee at an event we were both speaking at in Sharjah UAE. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was also at the table. The conversation meandered, but more than once came back to the topic of what it meant to have a free and open Internet. This was before Facebook’s relationship with Cambridge Analytica had surfaced and our collective dismay with the state of data privacy made the headlines and found its way to Capitol Hill.
At the time I had just finished my latest book on the future of our digital selves, Revealing The Invisible, so the topic of privacy and the ownership of behavioral data was top of mind. Little did I know that Sir Tim was already well on his way to addressing many of the challenges that would soon start to occupy so much of the conversation around the Internet and the companies that were voraciously capturing and monetizing our digital selves.
Back To The Vision
This week Tim Berners-Lee announced the launch of his new company, Inrupt. The vision behind Inrupt is simple and it’s consistnet with his original vision behind the web, to create an open web where data belongs to individuals who then decide which applications and other companies can access that data.
That’s a far cry from the current state of affairs in which we are trading our digital behaviors for the use of numerous applications that make money off of advertisers who use this data to influence our buying decisions. And, as we’ve seen in the last election cycle, to influence much more that we aren’t necessarily aware of.
According to Berners-Lee, “I’ve always believed the web is for everyone. 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.”
To be clear, what Inrupt is doing doesn’t play well with the business model of players such as Facebook and Google, which is predicated on collecting and owning as much data as possible about you. Those multi billion dollar interests aren’t going to politely make way for a more “equitable” alternative. In addition, the rich ecosystem of third party applications and the enormous volume of users already on existing data gathering platforms create huge barriers to entry for any new approach, no matter how much greater its promise of privacy.
It’s also not entirely clear how much we actually value our privacy when we so readily give it away. Yes, we complain bitterly about how our data is abused and monetized and yet we gleefully expose our lives, innermost thoughts, buying habits, locations, and conversations in countless digital communications and interactions each day.
Still, there is clearly a need for alternatives which at least offer the option of individual ownership and privacy of data. The problem with all prior efforts to build these alternatives is that they simply cannot reach a critical mass of users. There’s no doubt that having Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, at the helm certainly gives Inrupt a fighting chance of at least getting the attention rarely accorded to most startups.
So, how exactly is Inrupt going to achieve its lofty goal? The foundation of Inrupt’s solution is an open source platform called Solid, which can be used by web developers to create applications that use data which is stored in PODs. Simply put, Inrupt describes a Solid POD as being “like a secure USB stick for the Web, that you can access from anywhere. For example, if your POD contains photos then you give others access to parts of your POD with photos, they can react to your photos and share their memories with you.” But you alone decide which data in your POD apps and people can see.
In this sense a POD is a combination of digital identity and digital locker controlled by the individual who owns it. It’s your digital self, in one place, with one lock and multiple keys that are yours to share as you see fit.
Reading through Inrupt’s literature it’s not entirely clear how all of this will be managed; partly because the info available on Solid is clearly intended for developers. Unless you know what Turtle, RDFLIB, Triples and Quads are, you’re not likely to get too far. That’s not a surprise since Solid is ultimately open source software to be used by engineers.
However, even some of the more pedestrian marketing descriptions can get a bit obtuse. For example, here’s how Inrupt explains a Solid POD:
Think of your Solid POD as your own private website, except that your data interoperates with all your apps, which means you have your own personal API to go along with it. When you post comments or videos online, your friends can view them with whatever app they like, such as an album viewer or a social feed. It’s your data, that can be shaped in any way or form.
In order for Inrupt to succeed it will need to attract developers who can build a critical mass of applications which in turn attract a critical mass of users. But its also going to need to make a pitch to the consumer market, which provides a better reason for users to switch. That’s a tall order given that users of existing platforms such as Facebook number in the billions.
It may be a better bet to think of Inrupt not as a totalitarian sort of competitor, in a winner takes all battle to the death against Facebook, but rather as an option for users who are more concerned with privacy than the typical technology consumer. That sort of an approach may even provide a way to create bridge between Inrupt and more traditional tech companies. Even so, it’s not going to be an easy path to pave. Market momentum isn’t working in favor of Inrupt.
Still Berners-Lee is anything but daunted. The man who invented the Web sees the opportunity to bring equity to the Web as a calling to complete the vision he had of the Web from the outset. Berners-Lee is not going to be held hostage by the prologue of the past. In his own words, ” The future is still so much bigger than the past.”