Seeking Solid Ground

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Article from Issue 244/2021
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Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, has spent the past few years working on a vision for a new and better Internet. He showed up at the Reuters Next conference recently and gave an update.

Dear Reader,

Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, has spent the past few years working on a vision for a new and better Internet. He showed up at the Reuters Next conference recently and gave an update.

Solid (Social Linked Data) [1] is a project led by Berners-Lee and developed in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The goal is to create a fully functioning Internet that gives users control of their own data. The project envisions "…a web where people can use a single sign-on for any service and personal data is stored in pods (personal online data stores), controlled by the user" [2].

As of now, the Solid project has progressed beyond the conceptual stage. Berners-Lee and others have even launched a start-up company called Inrupt that will market a Solid server, developer tools, and technical support [3].

The whole social media universe is based on one simple premise: I'll provide you with storage and lots of cool free services if you let me comb through your data and extract value from it. The people of the Earth have largely accepted this peculiar arrangement, but part of the reason for the acquiescence is that, generally speaking, most people don't think they have a choice.

The truth is that the core services that people love about social networking are mostly not that remarkable or unique – a little bit content management system, a little bit RSS feed, and a little bit of messaging – with some features of a personal information manager thrown in to round it out. The main reason people sign away their privacy is to gain access to others who have signed away their privacy – and also because the services are implemented in a tidy and convenient form that is easy to use. This precarious arrangement is then shored up through the power of monopoly.

In theory, it might be easy to pop the bubble that is the commercial social media industry by offering a similar collection of services without forcing users to give up control. The only way it works, though, is if people buy in at a massive scale. Inrupt has already signed up the British National Health Service, the BBC, and the government of Flanders, Belgium as customers, and they plan to announce more contracts in April. Make no mistake though: It will take a lot of support from many more organizations around the world to help something like this catch on. Would a new round of privacy laws and renewed government emphasis on open standards be enough to level the field and give this technology a chance? Probably not, but other sectors might help to tip the scales. For instance, another intriguing question is whether the hosting industry, which is much more competitive than the social media industry, will adopt Solid technology as a means of wresting some control from global giants like Google and Facebook.

Inrupt's vision of a world where users control their own data could help to create a freer and more private Internet, but it won't solve everything. If you search for something on Google, Google will still try to remember what you did. Also, the ambitious and visionary Solid project won't solve the other critical problem plaguing the Internet: freaky extremist thought bubbles that foment division and gum up civic discourse with conspiracy theories and lies. Tim Berners-Lee is working on that problem too. In November 2019, he launched another initiative called the Contract for the Web [4] designed to shine a light on all the critical problems facing the web, including fake news, bullying, and political manipulation. One of the core principles of the Contract for the Web is to "Build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity."

I applaud Tim Berners-Lee for his bold vision and willingness to build on big ideas rather than just lamenting. Here's hoping we can dial back some of the madness and get to the Internet we always thought we would have.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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