Tim Berners-Lee Says We’ve Messed Up The Internet But It Can Be Fixed

When Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web he wanted to make it easier for engineers, and eventually all people, to openly and freely share information and ideas. But three decades later, the web of today is very different to what Berners-Lee imagined. He says it’s time for “mid course correction and get going off, again, in a positive direction”. He spoke about this during the closing of the first day of Oktane19.

The web, he said, “seemed like a good idea at the time”. But today, many people, are worried about social networks and where we are now.

“The arc of the web is rather complicated”.

When Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Foundation just 20% of the world was on the web – which he thought was incredible at the time. Back then, the goal was to get more people connected and to fight for the ideals he believed were important; neutrality, openness, freedom, innovation and growth.

Back then, there was a utopian view that once we shared information the need for regulation and control would diminish. People would share information they trusted from sources they respected by sharing links. But that changed through consolidation of the web and the use of algorithms that decide what we see rather than content that is curated by friends and trusted sources.

That’s what drove the blogosphere he said. But the growth of online advertising has fuelled a different web. For example, Berners-Lee noted that an article with the headline “Clinton wanted Trump to win” was created by a group of schoolchildren in Macedonia and collected the largest Google ad payoff for a single story ever recorded.

“The system has been designed with the best intentions, [but it], at a macroscopic view, misbehaves”.

Today, Berners-Lee champions a new platform called Solid (which we’ve written about before) which aims to give us back control of our personal data.

“The Solid program at MIT is about turning the way the web works upside-down,” said Berners-Lee. “It’s about separating the apps from the data. So, when you go to an app the app says to you ‘Where do you want to save your data?’”.

You can then create your own clouds and decide where the data goes. You can have various work and personal clouds, called Pods, that can be isolated from each other or can share data based on rules you, or an application developer, defines.

He likens this to the old days of computing where computers had two floppy disk drives. One drive was used to run the program you needed and the other disk stored your data. Now imagine if that data could be used, with your permission, by a different program. Extrapolate that to the web, where the data and apps could be run anywhere and you have an approximation of how Solid works.

For example, you could save medical data in a Pod and then share that with a doctor as needed. Or you can create something into a personal Pod and then share it to someone at work with control.

One of the challenges with existing systems is that they have boundaries. So, when you reach an edge, you’re limited in what you can do or share.

At its heart, Solid is a way of managing federated identity. Everyone with Solid has their own identifier, which looks like a URL, that makes it easy to share information.

Berners-Lee accepts that this is difficult to think about because it’s a paradigm shift as the data and the app are completely separated. For example, if you think about LinkedIn or Facebook, they data those apps store is in repositories controlled by the developers. But imagine if those apps kept their data in repositories – Pods in Solid-speak – that you control. That’s what Solid promises.

With issues such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the rise of new regulations such as the GDPR that have put data privacy and security front and centre and the closure of Google+, Berners-Lee said the need for us to exert personal control over our data is becoming increasingly important.

If you look at local initiatives such as the CDR Solid could be the place where your banking data is stored giving you direct control over your data.

But it could extend to data coming from IoT devices in your home or health trackers and sensors. The idea is that you get secure control over your data. For developers, it means they can create apps that look across different Pods and work with data ranging from the very personal to the very open.

“If we move away from the model where the job of an app developer is to distract the user into buying something, instead, the job of the app developer is to deliver value to the user,” he said.

Listening to Berners-Lee, whose mouth clearly cannot keep up with the ideas in his brain, it’s clear he still burns with the same flame of idealism that drove him to create the web. Whether that idealism will help drive the next 30 years of the web, just as it did the first decade or so, will be a challenge but it clearly drives him.

Anthony Caruana attended Oktane19 in San Francisco as a guest of Okta


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