Could Sir Tim Berners-Lee one day unite Europe on a shared data platform?

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton September 5, 2022 Audio mode
Summary:
Discussing the future of data ownership with John Bruce, CEO and co-founder, with SirTimBL, of innovative start-up, Inrupt.

GDPR

Here’s a hypothetical question from diginomica: Could Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s latest venture one day supply a trusted data infrastructure for the European Union – one that hands power over personal data back to citizens and consumers? Until recently, this was neither a serious question anyone might ask, nor even a remote possibility. But recent moves within some EU nations suggest – in theory, at least – that it’s a conversation that could start in the corridors of power. 

The company is Inrupt, the start-up co-founded in 2017 by Berners-Lee (Director and CTO) and John Bruce (Director and CEO), formerly of IBM acquisition Resilient. 

Although Sir Tim is the Web’s prime mover – plus co-founder and Director of W3C and the Web Foundation, and co-founder and President of the Open Data Institute – he remains a commercial outlier in a world full of maverick billionaires and Big Tech moguls. This quiet, principled man just wants his innovations to benefit humanity, which gives him two critical commodities in over-hyped times: trust and respect.

But the signs are that he and Bruce have commercial ambitions too. Inrupt has raised significant venture capital, reported to be in the region of $30 million to date (a figure that Bruce does not dispute). Meanwhile, its core technology, Solid Pods – virtual stores for personal data that are in the holder’s/subject’s control – are finally gaining traction in a world where the hype has long been centered on blockchain, crypto, NFTs, the metaverse, AI, and the IoT. 

For Inrupt, the commercial challenge is threefold: most people simply don’t ‘get’ the Solid Pod concept; more, it sounds overengineered and geeky (it is neither, though the name doesn’t help); and, above all, it has arrived after a quarter century of people happily giving their data away and turning themselves into products that can be sold on to advertisers, via Facebook, Amazon, et al.

Fortuitously for Inrupt, a GovTech conference of data leaders will take place in Belgium this autumn, on the safer, more innovative sharing of user data. Discussions will focus on governance, interoperable data spaces, single digital gateways, and digital identities. Sir Tim will attend and, in general terms, the response from EU governments to Inrupt’s ideas so far has been “promising”, claims the company. (The purpose of the conference is to discover shared policy directions around these issues, and Inrupt just happens to be onboard.)

However, the spur for wider European interest – informal and piecemeal though it remains at present – is interesting: the adoption of Inrupt’s enterprise-ready Solid platform by the Flanders government (the Flemish/Dutch-speaking region of Belgium that includes Brussels, Ghent, and Antwerp). Driven by the Flemish Data Utility Company, Flanders’ interest in creating a trusted, secure platform for data exchange among its citizens has not gone unnoticed elsewhere in Europe, and nor has its technology solution.

The European Union has long sought to counterbalance the might of Big Tech via citizen-centric regulation, of course. But data ownership, sovereignty, privacy, security, and protection are cornerstones of the entire digital economy. The US is moving, state by state, at glacial pace towards something resembling GDPR-lite; China has mandated citizen surveillance via social platforms and payment apps, while the UK has signalled its intention to start a regulatory bonfire that includes GDPR. Whitehall wants to spark growth in a fragile economy by putting data at the centre of a fragmented, short-termist strategy. All of this makes a trusted technology platform critical.

But beyond local politics, the big-picture challenge remains vast: how to redress the balance between citizens and consumers on the one hand, and on the other, the might of Alphabet/Google, Amazon/AWS, Apple, Microsoft, Meta/Facebook, and the rest, including Tencent, Alibaba, and others in Asia. 

So, where does Inrupt fit into this picture? CEO Bruce says:

We now have a substantial amount of capital to scale the business. And the reason we were able to raise the capital is that evidence of the value of our technology continues to grow. 

Earlier this year, we released Version 2.0 of the Solid product, in conjunction with a number of governments and corporations who candidly gave us great insight and feedback. Version 2.0 is very able to be deployed at scale, and we're standing it up. It's going operational in about six weeks and will be given to citizens, via the six million or so Solid Pods we’re rolling out for the Flanders government.

We’ve added consent management and verifiable credentials, which was a common ask. […] There’s this notion of authorized and authenticated credentials that you can store in a pod, and have agencies respect the fact that it is an endorsed credential.

Arguably, the likes of Apple, Amazon, Google, and FinTech disruptors would like users’ digital wallets to serve a similar function, but again this pits citizens/consumers against the might and walled gardens of Big Tech and its advertising partners.

For Inrupt, the relationship with Flanders seems to have been serendipitous rather than planned: a chance meeting between vendor and an ideal testbed for a new technology: one of limited scale but unlimited ambition in digital terms. Purely hypothetically, how might this fit with Europe’s wider goals? Bruce adds:

The notion of a collective digital construct for Europe… policymakers have been in fairly significant discussions about that for quite a while. This is a technology that could actually bring life to that, and the penny has dropped in a significant way around Europe. 

On the face of it, Flanders seems pleased with the technology, but on top of that, we've got regulatory approval for some of the way the technology is intended to be rolled out. There's a lot of work being done with Brussels to make sure that there's a whole stack. 

I wouldn't say it's a digital economy in a box for a country, I wouldn't go that far. But suffice to say, the technology is a piece of it, but then there are the legal issues, the regulatory issues. In Flanders, the government has issued a decree [to allow use of the platform], and they've done it in a way that other countries, similarly, could issue such as decree.

According to Bruce, governments’ adoption of the Solid platform wouldn’t just be good for the public sector. He says: 

It’s good for the government, but good for corporations, too. This is done in the expectation that those citizens will also be considered consumers. They're not just citizens of a country who need social services, they're also consumers of various products and services. 

The way we designed it, governments expect that corporations will want to involve themselves in this ecosystem, too. But how would one do that? The answer is, in a way that says, ‘By law, you have to treat our citizens with respect, and these are the ways in which we'd like that to happen’. 

And if a corporation wants to engage them as consumers, or as potential consumers of their product, they maybe get access to some of that information. […] Consumers’ data is available to them but is only able to be provisioned under the user’s consent or permission in a way that makes it good for everybody.

A global perspective

Inrupt’s strategy isn’t just focused on Europe: Bruce mentions discussions with South Korea, Australia, the UK, and Westminster’s new BFF, Singapore. So, what does he make of Britain’s current data strategy? Describing the UK as being in an “interesting” and exciting position – inventing a new future for itself – Bruce has concerns about its change management to date. He explains:

Some elements of an overarching strategy might struggle to see the light of day, as they are being considered as parallel streams and not as a single construct, in my humble opinion. 

[What the government says] is ‘We want a system that unlocks digital transformation, we want it to be scalable, secure, efficient, and sustainable – one login for one user, one entity, one representation of a citizen’. But [as diginomica has previously reported] across the whole of the government, there are something like 75 separate government services online, delivering against an individual citizen and most of them engage separately.

In Flanders, Solid and Inrupt offer the opportunity for a single citizen and single user-controlled repository of data to interact with both public services and private companies. But what about the US market, where Bruce himself is based?

Our business in the US is, I would say, markedly different. However, one of our investors now is Accenture, and I'm very excited with the discussions that Accenture is introducing us to, particularly here in the US, with the government. But here in the US, our corporate business is moving faster than our government one.

However, the big-picture challenge remains significant for Inrupt: a quarter century of people just giving their data away to corporations – and being spammed at and sold on as a result. Isn’t it too late to try to wrestle the giant, man-eating data squid into a single, user-controlled box? 

Bruce says: 

The Web has at its disposal the ability to make change happen fast. The opportunity for change is embodied in the thing that needs to be changed. It's the biggest adopted technology ever, it's the fastest communications device ever. 

Once it's truly shown that this is the way that things should happen, not just for consumers, not just for citizens, but also for corporations and governments, then the Web, in and of itself, will make change happen. That’s my personal belief.

My take

Inrupt and the vision of its founders are both exciting and promising, even if – in my opinion – the core product is poorly branded. A ‘Solid Pod’ makes one think of a faddy piece of smart-home hardware rather than a private, user-controlled data repository. It’s an off-putting name.

It’s really a key, one that unlocks services under the user’s Ts & Cs, putting personal data back in the subject’s direct control. That remains a good idea, but one that somehow needs to be retrofitted onto Sir Tim’s earlier invention, the Web. If only he’d thought of it 20 years ago!

But perhaps Inrupt simply needs a good testbed and a proof of concept – which may be Flanders, potentially opening the door to wider government adoption. As John McCrae’s First World War poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ says, “Take up our quarrel with the foe / to you from failing hands we throw / the torch; be yours to hold it high.”

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