Sir Tim Berners-Lee speaking at a conference

Sir Tim Berners-Lee calls for re-decentralisation of web with ‘Solid’ platform

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In a blog post, World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has presented a new, decentralised model for the web which proposes to restore users’ control of their own data in a “read-write” web.

Berners-Lee says that he has reduced his involvement with the World Wide Web Consortium and taken a sabbatical from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a professor of computer science, in order to work on this project. He has partnered with John Bruce to found a company, Inrupt, which will oversee the new web model.

The project is motivated by the centralisation of personal data online, driven by major internet companies such as Facebook and Google. These companies have been robustly criticised in recent years following scandals relating to intrusive data collection, data leaks and surreptitious oversharing with advertisers and partially motivating the implementation of GDPR across Europe. Last week’s Facebook data leak – which affected 50 million users – could land the company with a €1.63bn (£1.25bn) fine levied by the EU data protection regulator.

“For all the good we’ve achieved, the web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas,” he wrote in a blog post. “Today, I believe we’ve reached a critical tipping point and that powerful change for the better is possible – and necessary.”

“This is why I have, over recent years, been working with a few people at MIT and elsewhere to develop Solid, an open-source project to restore the power and agency of individuals on the web.”

According to Berners-Lee, this open-source platform – which is built using the existing web – empowers individuals by giving them complete control over their data. Users would be able to decide where their data is stored, how to share it, who can access it and which apps can access it. User data would be stored in a ‘Personal Online Data’ (POD) store, which is kept secure on a server of their choice.

According to its website, it is “the technology that underpins a movement, being led by Sir Tim Berners-Lee to re-orient the web to its original vision”. This proposes a web in which data is not just ‘make readable to all’, but in which users can interact with this information: a “read-write web”.

Berners-Lee says that this model offers the opportunity for creativity, problem solving and commerce, such as with the development of Solid-based apps and data storage. In a recent interview with Fast Company, Berners-Lee suggested that Inrupt could build a decentralised smart speaker and virtual assistant called Charlie, on which the user stores all their data. This is in stark contrast to market-leading smart speakers, which store user information on company servers.

Berners-Lee has been outspoken in favour of an “open” internet and was previously involved with UK government effort to make freely available government data acquired for official purposes. Over the past year, he has defended the principle of net neutrality, arguing that internet service providers (ISPs) should not control or monitor the browsing of their customers without their consent. He also called for “creative solutions” to prevent what he described as the “weaponisation” of the web.

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