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Saving the web from itself

Tim Berners-Lee has developed a tool to let web users own and control their data. A noble idea, but mass adoption will be tricky.

Theo Paraskevopoulos
Posted by Theo Paraskevopoulos 19 November 2018

For us digital dinosaurs, Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the web, is a legend. Geeky and benign, the MIT professor has been quietly looking after his creation through his work at the W3C. So the news that he was setting up a startup to stick two fingers up to the tech giants spread like wild fire.

Sir Tim clearly thinks his invention is broken. The power of big tech over us has reached a “critical tipping point, where change for the better is necessary”. To drive this change, he co-founded Inrupt, a startup that will build apps on Solid, an open-source platform to allow users maintain control of their data.

Sir Tim clearly thinks his invention is broken. He built solid to to allow users maintain control of their data.

The Solid ecosystem

The idea behind Solid is to reverse the model of data ownership: users keep their data in a virtual USB stick (a Personal Online Datastore or POD), and allow various apps of their choice to access it. By maintaining control of the data, they can switch between services and ensure privacy - the core pillars of open web.

Take for example your running app. Current apps store your running history internally which makes for a powerful “lock” mechanism: switch to a new app and you lose your history. From a privacy perspective, if you decide to ditch the app, you have no guarantee your data is properly deleted. 

By owning their data, users can switch between services and ensure privacy

With Solid, your running history is stored in your own POD. You grant apps permission to access your data as you wish. Access can be revoked at any time, as well as restricted - allowing the app to view your running history, but not your social interactions. 

What is the impact? 

Data is big tech’s most valuable asset. In fact, the unspoken contract with Google, Facebook etc. is that we get apps for free, in exchange for our data. A mass transfer of data ownership, would have big implications in all digital services including search, social, commerce.

We get free apps for our data. Transfer of data ownership, would break this contract

On one hand, unlocking the entrenched network effects, could usher in some needed much-competition. On the other, it may also hinder innovation, as data - the bedrock of Machine Learning - becomes scarce or unreliable. Most importantly, the free-app-for-data model will reverse, begging the question: would you pay to use Instagram and Gmail?

Will it catch?

For all its honest intentions, Solid - as well as most other initiatives of the Decentralised web movement - is unlikely to break into the digital mainstream. Complexity will limit its use to all but the most savvy consumers. Security is a huge concern, as criminals would make an easy job of hacking self-maintained PODs. And apps will be scarce, as an unpredictable data layer makes them hard to build and scale. 

Security and scale, the main challenges of the modern web will probably confine Solid to niche audiences

Tim Burners-Lee created Solid to disrupt the disrupters. However, the twin challenges of security and scale which characterise the modern web will probably confine it to niche audiences. But perhaps that is exactly his point: keep tinkering, keep creating niches - and keep the web alive. 

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