Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s vision to turn the internet inside out

The inventor of the internet is making a new internet.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who created the World Wide Web, has taken a sabbatical from his position at MIT and cut back on other commitments to work on a new, decentralised internet.

The key word here, as it usually is, is decentralised.

Berners-Lee has been a vocal opponent of the way the web has evolved over the last decade or so.

On 12 March, in the wake of numerous social media and data scandals, he put out the following, through the Web Foundation:

What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.

What’s more, the fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponise the web at scale. In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data.

Like many people, he doesn’t like the power dynamic we have now. Which is basically users giving away their personal data and creating content for big companies to profit from by selling it on.

The way Berners-Lee wants the internet to work is that users own their own data and content, and let companies access it and build applications for it at the user’s request.

He explains the idea in a blog post on his new company’s website:

Solid [the new internet] changes the current model where users have to hand over personal data to digital giants in exchange for perceived value. 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.

Solid is a platform, built using the existing web. 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.

Here’s how it works

You get a “pod” where you store all your data and content: photos, comments, contact details, fitness tracker data, calendar information, etc.

This pod can be stored on your own computer or on the cloud, and you can move it around however you like.

You then can grant apps and companies permission to access and edit certain parts of it. So, say you’d give Strava access to your running data, or Instagram access to your photos.

Obviously you choose which data those apps can specifically access. Like you wouldn’t want to give Instagram access to all your photos, just the ones you want to post.

And you can revoke access to users, companies and apps whenever you want.

As well as this, your pod works as your identity on the web. So there is no more logging into services required. You would simply use your pod to log in to any service.

As I said, this is basically turning the internet inside out. Instead of giving companies your data and letting them store and own it, you own your own data and let companies access it on your own terms.

It would be decentralised because each person owns their own individual pod. No central company like Facebook or Google would own or be able to lock up any individual’s data.

What about blockchain, isn’t that supposed to be making a “decentralised internet”?

Any mention of blockchain is completely absent from Berners-Lee’s posts and new company website.

That seems a little strange as there are a number of blockchain projects aiming to do exactly what he is doing here.

He has even been in contact with members of the MaidSafe team. So it’s not like he’s not aware of these projects and blockchain’s potential.

Berners-Lee’s new internet is designed to run on top of the normal internet. It’s not a whole new system like blockchain.

As Bitcoin Exchange Guide wrote on 1 October:

Despite being supportive of blockchain technology, Tim built Solid on the existing web technology. Furthermore, he has not indicated intentions of integrating the technology. For blockchain to work with Solid, it would have to be interoperable and offer multi-chain support.

I would imagine blockchain compatibility would be something he’d be looking to implement at a later date. But so far there is no word on this.

Can it really work?

Berners-Lee’s new internet is a great idea. But I can immediately see a few problems with it.

The first one being, it’s going to take a huge amount of effort to get people and companies to switch to this new internet.

It has taken a long time to get the majority of the population up to speed with using the internet, and this new version would mean teaching people a new way of doing things all over again.

But I don’t really think that’s a fair criticism. Progress always requires people to adapt and if it really does create a better platform in the long run, it will be worth it.

There is a growing backlash among the public about how the internet currently works. From Facebook and Google data harvesting to advertising popups to large-scale hacks and data leaks.

If Berners-Lee can tap into this backlash, he will be able to get a lot of people on his side.

However, the biggest problem I can see is that Big Tech isn’t going to go down without a fight.

Internet giants are some of the most powerful companies on the planet and this is a direct threat to their business model.

I could imagine these companies simply forcing you to give up rights to your data in order to use their services.

Want to keep using Google Maps? Then you need to let us keep data on your movements.

Want to message your friend on Facebook? Then you need to let us keep backups of all those conversations.

Want to use our banking app? Then you need to give us data on all your spending in the last 12 months.

You get the idea.

Just like how GDPR has simply made us endlessly click tracking consent forms to access websites, this could have a similar effect.

Yes, you’re in charge of your data. But if you want to use our app or service, you need to hand it over to us permanently to use as we wish.

Although, I’m sure Berners-Lee has already thought these scenarios through. He’s a much smarter person than I am, and he wouldn’t undertake such a goliath project if he didn’t think it would work out.

This is a project I’ll be following closely in Exponential Investor as it progresses.

There’s a chance we could witnessing the start of a second world-changing technology created by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Wouldn’t that be something?

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

Category: Technology

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