Inventor Of The Web, Tim Berners-Lee, Wants To Take It Back

What would one say about a computer geek who said he could protect their online identity, and while doing do would make a bold move against the likes of Facebook and Google?

What would one say if that person happened to be the inventor of the World Wide Web?

As consumers become more cautious — cynical? — about online privacy and data storage, Tim Berners-Lee has a plan to “decentralize the web and take back power from the forces that have profited from centralizing it,” according to a report. The hook? Technology that enables consumers to control their data as they shop, pay and perform other tasks online.

Berners-Lee has launched a company called Inrupt, which itself is built around his platform called Solid. According to Berners-Lee, “Solid 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.”

More specifically, the idea works like this, according to Fast Company: “Every bit of data [a user] creates or adds on Solid exists within a Solid pod, which is an acronym for personal online data store. These pods are what give Solid users control over their applications and information on the web. Anyone using the platform will get a Solid identity and Solid pod. This is how people, Berners-Lee says, will take back the power of the web from corporations.”

Users of the technology could use apps that are based on the Solid technology, which are reportedly a work in progress. Berners-Lee also is developing an alternative to Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant technology called Charlie, which keeps data ownership with the consumer, not a company. Taken together, the technology will, he said, appeal to people who are uneasy with what they view as corporate control of the internet. “Developers have always had a certain amount of revolutionary spirit,” he told Fast Company.

This would seem to be a favorable time for digital products and services that emphasize privacy and data security. Not only is Facebook still trying to get ahead of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, but new laws in Europe and California are designed to give consumers much more control over their digital information and personas.

The big tech firms are trying to make sure they have a major say in whatever comes next for data privacy and regulation.

Recently, execs from Apple, Amazon, AlphabetTwitterAT&T and Charter Communications were called by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to participate in testimony for crafting a federal privacy law, and how it could be influenced by existing privacy laws, such as Europe’s GDPR or California’s consumer privacy law.

While the executives at the hearing late last month agreed that a federal privacy law is necessary, they disagreed on issues such as how it should be created and enforced. There were also warnings that a “patchwork” of privacy laws across various states would hurt businesses, as well as concerns that compliance costs could also do harm.

Meanwhile, smaller firms are attempting to seize the moment.

That includes DuckDuckGo, a search engine that does not track consumers’ browsing histories or sell consumers’ data to third parties for the purposes of ad targeting and precision marketing. In a recent PYMNTS interview, CEO Gabriel Weinberg talked about how his company raised $10 million in fresh capital — only the second funding round for the 10-year-old, Pennsylvania-based operation — and has plans to better promote itself to a global audience, while also offering other privacy protection technology.

“Awareness is really high,” Weinberg said about online privacy, adding that the company’s own surveys echo findings that a good chunk of consumers are having second thoughts about how their data is used by digital service providers. “People are trying to figure out how to protect themselves online.”

Awareness of the trade-offs involved in free online services like email — or expected consumer benefits like personalized product recommendations and automatic ordering — is also increasing. “In exchange for personal convenience, I’m helping Amazon take over the world. And am I okay with that? I’m not sure,” said Paul Marty, a professor at Florida State University’s School of Information, who teaches about the larger societal impacts of the internet.

Such questions may be asked with increasing frequency, but there is little hard evidence so far that consumers are ready to leave behind the providers of those free services. Sure, 42 percent of Facebook users have taken a break from the platform during the past year, while 54 percent of those 18 and older told Pew Research they have adjusted their privacy settings during that timeframe, according to a recent PYMNTS story. But that doesn’t mean those consumers will stay away from the social media platform for good, especially if the bulk of their friends keep using it, according to remarks made recently to PYMNTS by Sunil Madhu, founder of identity verification and fraud prevention services provider Socure.

Or, as Mitchell Baker, chair of the Mozilla Foundation, put it recently to The Guardian: “Right now humanity lives at Facebook.”

As for Gmail, it has more than 1.4 billion users, and at least 44 percent of U.S. consumers use it, far ahead of rivals — and gmail’s popularity is higher among younger consumers than older ones, in large part because those younger consumers use a variety of free Google digital services.

Berners-Lee’s efforts to rebalance web privacy in favor of consumers also faces other significant questions. What about the “about the scope of data that Berners-Lee expects people to store in PODs, and how we’re supposed to maintain it,” asked one analysis of this general plan. “All my contacts currently live in Google’s cloud, and so do the contents of my multiple email inboxes. Am I supposed to export and migrate it all to PODs so I can use related apps for contact management and email on the Solid platform? And is it my responsibility to avoid issues like duplicate entries?”

Another issue? (And this one applies to more the general idea of the decentralized web, part of the Berners-Lee vision). According to Baker, “a killer app, a thing that everyone wants, could help here – but there isn’t one yet. Many of the apps that do exist are clunky and difficult to use; user experience needs to improve.”

And how will companies anchored around this idea of privacy protection make money? In DuckDuckGo’s case, the money comes from ad revenues — marketing messages served up according to the search terms used by consumers, along with commissions from online retail sales that involve searches on the site — but there is no revenue stream from the selling of data from those consumers. One way is to charge consumers for services that protect their privacy. Will enough for them pay? And you can be sure that any significant threat to the revenue streams of the big corporate players will bring about a severe pushback on their part (if not sooner in order to protect their turf, of course).

In the interview with Fast Company, there was little discussion of the revenue question. “Berners-Lee plans to start looking for more venture funding and grow his team. The aim, for now, is not to make billions of dollars,” the article said. “The man who gave the web away for free has never been motivated by money. Still, his plans could impact billion-dollar business models that profit off of control over data.”

Such questions always come with potential business opportunities — and given all the changes to the web since its invention, its inventor has his work cut out for him.