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Tim Berners-Lee
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Policy & Politics

Tim Berners-Lee Wants To Reinvent The Internet To Promote Innovation

30 years after helping create the internet, Tim Berners-Lee has a few ideas about how to make personal data more secure and drive innovation.

In the world of digital communications, Tim Berners-Lee is a god. 30 years ago, he wrote the codes that made the world wide web possible. He has been awarded the Turing Prize, often considered the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for computer science, and been knighted by the Queen of England. But with the benefit of hindsight, he sees how his creation has morphed into something quite different than what he imagined it would be — an egalitarian tool of connection and information sharing.

According to the New York Times, Berners-Lee, believes the online world has gone astray. Too much power and too much personal data, he says, reside with the tech giants like Google and Facebook, which he refers to generically as “silos.” Having amassed enormous troves of data, they have become surveillance platforms and gatekeepers of innovation instead of the tools for an interconnected world he envisioned.

Now, he wants to correct the flaws that time has exposed and reinvent the internet so it more closely follows those original precepts. By so doing, he hopes to reinvigorate the collaborative capabilities of the internet, a feature humanity desperately needs as it seeks to solve the global sustainability issues of today. Anything that stifles innovation makes finding those solutions more difficult.

His goal is to recreate the internet so it is “the web that I originally wanted.” The key to his new connectivity model is what he calls “pods” — short for personal online data stores. With them, people would be empowered to control their own data — the records of what websites they visit, what music they listen to, what purchases they make online. They would have control over their own data in an individual data safe, typically a sliver of server space.

Companies would be allowed to gain access to a person’s data, with permission, through a secure link for a specific task like processing a loan application or delivering a personalized ad. They could link to and use personal information selectively but not store it. To implement his latest thinking, Berners-Lee has created Solid, which uses “web standards to let people control their data, and choose the applications and services to use with it.” Here’s more from Solid’s website.

All of your data, under your control

Solid lets people store their data securely in decentralized data stores called Pods. Pods are like secure personal web servers for data. All data in a pod is accessible via the Solid Protocol. When data is stored in someone’s pod, they control who and what can access it.

Store Anything

Any kind of data can be stored in a Solid pod, including regular files that you might store in a Google Drive or Dropbox folder, but it is the ability to store Linked Data that makes Solid special.

Using interoperable data standards

Linked Data gives Solid a common way to describe things and how they relate to each other, in a way that other people and machines can understand. This means that the data stored by Solid is portable and completely interoperable.

Share it safely

Anyone or anything that accesses data in a Solid pod uses a unique ID, authenticated by a decentralized extensioof OpenID Connect. Solid’s access control system uses these IDs to determine whether a person or application has access to a resource in a pod.

Solid creates interoperable ecosystems of applications and data. Data stored in Solid pods can power ecosystems of interoperable applications where individuals are free to use their data seamlessly across different applications and services.

Tim Berners-Lee Inrupt

Credit: Inrupt

Together with John Bruce, who has been involved in 5 start-ups to date, Berners-Lee founded Inrupt, a company intended to commercialize this latest web model. “This is about making markets,” said Mr. Berners-Lee, who is Inrupt’s chief technology officer. The new company is already designing pods for the UK’s National Health Service and the government of Flanders. Its initial business model is to charge licensing fees for its commercial software, which uses the Solid open-source technology but with enhanced security, management, and developer tools.

Berners-Lee points out that start-up companies like his often play a crucial role in accelerating the adoption of new technologies. For instance, the world wide web really began to accelerate after Netscape introduced web-browsing software and Red Hat brought Linux, the open-source operating system, into corporate data centers.

Data portability is gaining popularity in the tech world. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Twitter have created the Data Transfer Project and the FTC recently sponsored a Data To Go workshop for those in the industry. “In this changed regulatory setting, there is a market opportunity for Tim Berners-Lee’s firm and others to offer individuals better ways to control their data,” said Peter Swire, a privacy expert at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business.

“Tim has become increasingly concerned as power in the digital world is weighted against the individual,” says Daniel Weitzner, a principal research scientist at the M.I.T. Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. “That shift is what Solid and Inrupt are meant to correct.” A new deal on data will require entrepreneurs, engineers and investors to see opportunities for new products and services, just as they did with the web, Sir Tim adds. He envisions a thriving decentralized marketplace fueled by personal empowerment and collaboration. “The end vision is very powerful,” he says.

Bruce Schneier, a well respected computer security and privacy expert has joined Inrupt as chief of security architecture. “This technology could unlock an enormous amount of innovation,” potentially becoming a new platform as the iPhone was for smartphone apps, he suggests. “I think this stands a good chance of changing how the internet works.”

Few would argue that the internet doesn’t need improvements in data security. If Sir Tim’s ideas work out, an increase in collaboration online could be a boon for all humanity — something we sorely need right about now.

 

 
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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his homes in Florida and Connecticut or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.

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