The history of digital technology has been a back-and-forth battle for control between users and vendors, between open and proprietary. When it comes to our personal data, proprietary currently has the upper hand. Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple and many others have built huge digital empires on the back of what they know about our behaviors and relationships.
But the tide is about to turn on these digital giants. This weekend, the biggest threat to Facebook isn't the admission that 50 million user accounts have been compromised — though that won't help. It's the launch of a small startup called Inrupt by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the Yoda-like instigator of the WorldWide Web.
You may think this sounds far-fetched, but the history of computing is littered with the empty husks of once dominant proprietary powers. And Berners-Lee is deadly serious in his mission, as he tells Fast Company, who broke the story today:
We are not talking to Facebook and Google about whether or not to introduce a complete change where all their business models are completely upended overnight. We are not asking their permission.
Solid lets individuals control their data
The new venture will promote uptake of an open-source project called Solid that Berners-Lee has been working on for the past few years at MIT, where he is a professor in the Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab. To focus his energies on Inrupt, he is taking a sabbatical from MIT but will continue as founder and director of the W3 Consortium, the governing body of the WorldWide Web, along with the Web Foundation and the Open Data Institute, as he believes all three bodies are "vital components for protecting what has been — and what will come."
Solid is a framework that allows individuals to control their own data. Instead of that data being stored in separate proprietary databases, from Facebook to your healthcare provider's health record, it stays under the individual's control in a personal online data store, or 'pod'. From here, the individual decides who gets to access their data, as Berners-Lee explains in his Medium post announcing the launch of Inrupt today:
Solid is a platform, built using the existing web. It 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.
Replacing proprietary silos
This upends the existing power structures that surround data on the Web today. Instead of holding your data in separate proprietary silos that you have little or no control over, Solid lets you hold all your data where you choose, and actively govern how it's accessed and by whom. As Berners-Lee explained when speaking about Solid at MuleSoft's annual conference in May this year, this replaces all of those proprietary silos with a single API that you control, making it much simpler to share information with whoever you want to have it:
People ... have friends on Facebook and they have colleagues on LinkedIn and they have photos on Flickr and if they want to share the photos on Flickr with their friends on Facebook, they have to upload the pictures to Facebook. If they want to share that with people on LinkedIn, then they have to use LinkedIn, and so they’re actually in these silos ...
When we’ve got these silos, our ability to share information is very limited ...
Imagine if all the data that touched me, you could store it in any store, you could use any application to use it. Because in fact instead of having specific APIs, we’re saying we’ll have one big generic API, which is just the ability to read and write arbitrary structured data. In the Solid system, you could give me your card, I can take your ID up and I can give you access to anything ... We’re going to break down those walls between these silos.
Rebellion against digital empires
Berners-Lee showed Fast Company's reporter an app that he's built to demonstrate how Solid will make it much simpler to co-ordinate all the data people use to organize their day-to-day lives:
The app, using Solid’s decentralized technology, allows Berners-Lee to access all of his data seamlessly — his calendar, his music library, videos, chat, research. It’s like a mashup of Google Drive, Microsoft Outlook, Slack, Spotify, and WhatsApp.
The difference here is that, on Solid, all the information is under his control.
He believes Solid will also simplify how enterprises and governments handle personal information, since there will be a single authoritative source of data about each individual, rather than separate siloed records that each have to be independently updated.
But Berners-Lee's fighting talk acknowledges that there are powerful vested interests who will not readily cede control of this data:
Solid changes the current model where users have to hand over personal data to digital giants in exchange for perceived value. As we’ve all discovered, this hasn’t been in our best interests. Solid is how we evolve the web in order to restore balance — by giving every one of us complete control over data, personal or not, in a revolutionary way.
This is not the first initiative to attempt to wrest control of web data and give it back to individuals. Back in 2014 I attended the launch of the Respect Network, championed by Cluetrain Manifesto co-author Doc Searls. That too aimed to wrest power back from Facebook, but in the end it petered out.
Will Solid fare any better? My gut feel is that it's a much stronger proposition, not least because of the backing of Berners-Lee. And I think the timing is more propitious. For one thing, people have become much more wary of what Facebook and others are doing with their data. On top of that, there's a growing recognition of all the friction that these different proprietary silos introduce.
If new ventures encouraged by Inrupt and building on Solid can start to simplify people's digital lives and cut costs for the organizations they interact with, there starts to be a commercial rationale for pulling data out of today's digital empires and giving power back to their digital citizens.
As I said at the outset, the history of digital technology is a back-and-forth between proprietary and open. What I omitted to say was that open always prevails, because network effects always win in the end. Just like in the Star Wars film franchise, it's not going to be an easy struggle, but I'm rooting for Berners-Lee's army of Solid rebels.