Tim Berners-Lee is unhappy with the state of the web.
Like many others, the recent Turing award-winner has little faith in the centralized model that keeps the web spinning. As far as Berners-Lee is concerned, the web as it stands today is insensitive to privacy, makes life easy for fake news outlets and is slowly sapping the power away from the people.
Last month marked the 28th anniversary of Berners-Lee's proposal to create the web.
Our Centralized Web
The web as we experience it daily is controlled by a relatively small number of companies — Amazon, Facebook and Google being some of the most obvious names.
That’s bad news for three reasons:
Privacy is all but dead — but that’s not the worrying part.
People, in general, have come to accept the loss of their online privacy as a forgone conclusion. If we go by usage statistics of privacy-pinching apps like Facebook alone, most internet users have succumbed to the fact that, to use the most popular online platforms, you need to part with elements of your privacy.
But Tim Berners-Lee is of a different opinion. In an article published by The Guardian, Berners-Lee stressed that privacy shouldn’t be viewed as a luxury of old. Instead, it should be seen as nothing less than a human right.
You “can't mess with human rights like that without massive unexpected and very disastrous consequences,” he stated.
In a separate interview with Wired, Berners-Lee accused governments of increasingly watching every move online, and passing extreme laws that trample on privacy rights. “Watching everyone all the time is simply going too far,” he said.
The issue of fake news — although at times exaggerated — is very real.
Although lies are nothing new, the centralization of the web has made it easy for false information to spread faster and wider than ever before.
Berners-Lee is also aware of this growing dilemma. He says that social networks benefit financially from driving traffic to external websites, and that their algorithms can spread fake news “like wildfire, [allowing those] with bad intentions to game the system and spread misinformation for financial or political gain.”
Finally, the world wide web’s current centralized model puts security and sustainability in general at risk. The global ramifications of the recent DDOS attacks on Dyn and the Amazon AWS S3 outage is proof enough of this.
Dyn (now owned by Oracle) and Amazon are two of a select few companies responsible — perhaps exceedingly so — for keeping large chunks of the internet healthy and accessible.
The only problem is, when those few companies experience issues, the world experiences those issues along with them.
By cramming the internet’s eggs into such few baskets, huge segments of the web become vulnerable to malicious hackers, while even innocent server issues suddenly become profit-eating disasters for businesses who didn’t even realize they were relying on Amazon to keep their service online.
A Solid Solution
Tim Berners-Lee isn’t just venting. He has a plan.
He and his team at MIT are working hard to decentralize the web and give the power back to the people through an ambitious project named Solid.
Solid (derived from "social linked data") is a set of conventions and tools for building decentralized social applications based on Linked Data principles.
Essentially, Solid is a modular and extensible set of app building standards based on existing W3C standards and protocols.
The proposed benefits of Solid are three-fold:
- Decentralized Data Ownership: users should have the freedom to choose where their data resides and who is allowed to access it by decoupling content from the application itself.
- Modular Design: Because applications are decoupled from the data they produce, users will be able to avoid vendor lock-in by seamlessly switching the apps and personal data storage servers, without losing any data or social connections.
- Recycled Data: Developers will be able to easily innovate by creating new apps or improving current apps, all while reusing existing data that was created by other apps.
The Solid team, headed by Berners-Lee, is focused on creating this open technology standard that different applications can use to share data, regardless of what that data is or what type of application needs to read it. Such a standard would enable applications — like social networks for example — to read and write data from the servers individual users choose and control, rather than from servers that belong to a company.
Individual users can then control where their data is stored, how it’s accessed and who can access it.
Power to the People
Here’s an example of how it would work:
Your favorite social networks would still run in the cloud, but you can now store your data locally. Alternately, you could choose a different cloud server run by a company or community you trust. If you wanted to keep your financial and health records separate, you could do that by hosting them in two different servers. The beauty of it is, the way you choose to silo your data — if at all — is totally up to you.
Berners-Lee summed it up in a sentence:
“It’s kind of like when you had floppy disks and you had one disk for the application and another for the storage.”
Not only would this project give the power back to the people, it would give them control over their own data in ways never before seen.
MasterCard and the Qatar Computing Research Institute are the two primary sponsors of the project, with the former laying down a $1 million investment to fund research and development.
The Barriers to a Decentralized World Wide Web
How realistic is Berner-Lee's vision?
The world wide web grows more colossal with each passing day, and keeping it running smoothly is a mammoth task. There’s a reason why powerful companies have so much control — they have the required infrastructure for the job.
But here’s the thing: this won’t be the organic web’s first fight against power-hungry companies.
Last year at the Decentralized Web Summit, Berners-Lee noted that in the early days of widespread internet usage, it looked likely that proprietary online services such as America Online and Prodigy would be the centralizers of the web, owning the major platforms and controlling large parts of the narratives within.
But they couldn't tame the freely growing organic web. “You can make the walled garden very very sweet,” Berners-Lee remarked at the summit. “But the jungle outside is always more appealing in the long term.”
As for the problem of fake news, many are still adamant that a more centrally controlled web is the only way to battle it. After all, they argue, if the ring of organizations who control most of the web can find a way to filter out fake news, which is starting to happen, that would take care of the problem.
Some argue a decentralized world wide web would just be an unvetted playground for fake news propagators.
Tim Berners-Lee disagrees. He refers to Wikipedia as an, albeit imperfect, relatively sound source of information. It’s a community project, but it has safeguards in place to keep the information in line with the truth on the vast majority of occasions.
“The net good of Wikipedia is huge,” Berners-Lee insists, so if we the people can get that right without centralized powers, we should be able to get the rest of the web right, too.
Return of The Jungle?
Twenty-eight years after he invented the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee may be on the cusp of revolutionizing it.
But before he can do that, he has a fight on his hands. Not just against the big brands controlling the web, but also against the naysayers who prefer walled gardens above organic jungles.
The Solid project is a tantalizing prospect — and I for one am eager to see it blossom into the new future for the organic, wild and free web.