An obscure MIT project may radically change your life. It aims to change the way the Internet works and restore your control over your data. It’s a breathtakingly audacious idea that could only be engineered by an audacious expert. It may be the second most important gift ever bestowed upon humankind by Tim Berners-Lee. Tim Berners-Lee first gift came in 1987 when he invented the World Wide Web and gave it to us as a gift, without patents, copyrights, or trademarks. The second gift is Berners-Lee’s new project, underway at his MIT lab, is called Solid (“social linked data”), a way for you to own your own data while making it available to the applications that you want to be able to use it. His idea: you store your data in “pods” (personal online data stores) that are hosted wherever you would like. But Solid isn’t just a storage system; it lets other applications ask for data. If Solid authenticates the apps and — importantly — if you’ve given permission for them to access that data, then Solid will complete the transaction.
Berners-Lee has seen the dangers and abuses of the open system that he created 40 years ago. Recently, he published an open letter through the World Wide Web Foundation calling for solutions to three online challenges: loss of control over personal data; the rapid and easy spread of misinformation on the Web; and the rise of opaque, sophisticated and targeted political advertising online. He wrote: “I imagined the Web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries,” Berners-Lee wrote in the letter’s introduction. “In many ways, the Web has lived up to this vision, though it has been a recurring battle to keep it open. But over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we must tackle in order for the Web to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity.
When Berners-Lee created the web, it was a decentralized platform. Anyone could publish a website and link to any other site. But as the web has grown from an obscure research-sharing tool for the scientific community into a global medium for commerce, communication, journalism, and entertainment, the power dynamics have shifted. Today, huge companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Netflix dominate the web. These corporate giants enjoy an enormous amount of control not only over what people see and do online but over users’ private data.
These days, Berners-Lee is working to reverse that trend as the co-lead of the Decentralized Information Group at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (CSAIL). While data centralization isn’t the only problem the web is facing, he thinks that his project would help keep the Net neutral and allow others to use it to rebuild a means towards promoting democracy and truth in science. Berners-Lee accurately observes: “I think people have looked at the last 12 months and said actually there’s evidence that the web has been more of a purveyor of untruth than of truth because of the way the adverting revenue model encourages people to put things online which will be clicked on.”
Another Web pioneer is heading in a similar direction to Berners-Lee. Albert Wenger, an early backer of Etsy and Tumblr, is backing a company founded on the principle that the Web needs a rethink. He’s quoted as saying: “We’re living in a time period where the new incumbents like Amazon, Google, and Facebook have firmly established themselves, and are near monopolists in their markets,” says Wenger. “If we want a long-term, open playing field for innovation, we’re going to need new, decentralized infrastructure.” His company, Blockstack received $4 million in funding to try to establish that more open playing field. The startup is working on open-source software that will create a kind of parallel universe to the Web we know—one where users have more control of their data. According to the MIT Technology Review, later in 2017, Blockstack will release software that lets you surf sites and apps created for this new digital domain using your existing Web browser. You will still be able to load sites by clicking links or typing Web addresses, perhaps to find places to chat with friends or go shopping. But instead of needing to create accounts with each site, as people do with Google or Facebook, users of sites built on Blockstack’s system will control their own digital identity (or identities). To use a site that needs your information, you will grant access to a profile under your control alone. If you want to stop using a service, you can revoke its access to your profile and data and take it elsewhere. Sites will run all their code on your computer, in the browser.
Solid and Blackstock are just two ideas that may lead consumers to be able to reclaim control (and truth) on the Internet. They are both promising initiatives that are worthy of your attention and…..down the road…..support.