Father of the Web advocates personal data ownership
- Distrust of Big Tech "hoarding and harvesting" business model is growing
- So is the need to allow people to own and control their own data
- "Father of the Web", Tim Berners-Lee, introduces the Solid open-source software initiative to do just that
- Users choose where their data is stored, who can use it - and who can't
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, believes the Big Tech companies hold so much personal data they are now almost too powerful to control. He says that user control over their own data has been very badly eroded over the years and that the introduction of new regulatory environments will not alone be sufficient to restrain the excesses of Big Tech companies. The solution is to give people complete control over their own data and, to that end, three years ago he began a start-up company, "Inrupt", with the intent to devise a technology and system that, as he puts it, will help foster a move back to "the Web that I originally wanted."
The result is the open-source software initiative "Solid", a decentralized identity platform which, it is hoped, will permit users to keep and control their personal data in individual Personal Online Data Stores or "Pods". Solid was developed at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the US. Pods store user data in an interoperable format and provide individual users with controls to give others explicit permission to use some closely identified data or, and this is probably the most important aspect, to deny it.
Sir Tim says the Solid platform, "Gives every user a choice about where data is stored, which specific people and groups can access select elements, and which apps you use. It allows you, your family and colleagues, to link and share data with anyone. It allows people to look at the same data with different apps at the same time."
The underlying notion is that, over time, data ownership will gradually swing away from the "hoard and continually harvest" model practiced by the likes of Facebook and Google to the full control of every individual whilst, most importantly, maintaining the extant methodology of website construction that have been developed and standardised over the years since the first web page graced a computer terminal screen back in 1992. Centred on universal open-source interoperability, Solid applications will work with any web browser.
Conceptually, Pods are closely related to email services where precise and explicit identification links to an individual's content. They will be free for individual users, and in the beginning at least will be sponsored by the enterprises and organisations that adopt the new privacy platform and interface.
Today, Solid has announced the availability of an enterprise version of the product which allows large organisations and government agencies to build applications that put users in control of their data. Enterprise Pods are offered on a server managed by Solid and services and apps developers are required to use the Solid Development Kit.
In the UK, both the National Health Service (NHS) and the BBC have been working with pre-release versions of the software. In the case of the NHS, which is experiencing unprecedented strain under the onslaught of the second wave of Covid-19, the organisation has been constructing a Solid application for patients to interact with the service. Individuals will be able to permit doctors, family or at-home caregivers to read some data from their Solid Pods, and add notes or observations that doctors can then read and where necessary act upon to improve patient care.
With distrust of Big Tech companies on the rise, Berners-Lee, a long-time champion of net neutrality and openness of the Internet does not mention or identify individual companies by name but lumps them together as "silos", i.e factories exploiting immense agglomerations of user data that have become de facto mass surveillance platforms, destroyers of privacy and "gatekeepers of innovation."
He says Solid was, from the outset, open-source, designed to be easy to use and standards-based so that it has the potential to spread widely across and deeply through the Web at massive scale. Initial uptake will inevitably take time and will be patchy and may fail altogether. Nonetheless it is the only solution currently available that will put data control back into the hands of individuals who own it and give them the ability to permit or prohibit its use. As such that is surely to be applauded. After all "mighty oaks from little acorns grow" as the 14th Century English proverb has it.
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