For Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing and giving away the World Wide Web protocol that shaped the internet as we know it today, the web at its best has always been about being decentralized.
“The decision to make the Web an open system was necessary for it to be universal. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it,” Berners-Lee famously noted in 1998.
But that is not quite the way things have evolved on the web, according to Berners-Lee. Centralization has come in many forms — and has firmly taken the data created by consumers and corporations and placed it largely outside of their control. Which means, he wrote in a blog post in late 2018, for all the genuine good his invention has done for the world, it isn’t living up to its full potential. In fact, he wrote, “the web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division, swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas.”
The good news, Berners-Lee told Karen Webster in a recent conversation, is that he believes that problems in the evolution of the modern web can be solved, and are reaching a point where they must be. It’s why he and a team of MIT developers have been building a protocol called Solid for the last several years — though it only came out of stealth in the last several months.
Because, he says, the problems are appearing on two tracks — and are getting harder to ignore on both.
The first track — and the most obvious to anyone who’s been reading headlines — is that those powerful forces hoarding consumer data on their private servers have often shown themselves to be poor stewards of the data. Situations like the Cambridge Analytica scandal have rapidly reminded many that letting others control their data with minimal oversight has risks.
But that’s not the most important issue – just the one that grabs all of the headlines.
The issue that is more pervasive, and one that Berners-Lee says is draining utility from the web every day, is the fact that consumers can’t take their data with them as they travel the web.
Berners-Lee said that there are plenty of instances where consumers and businesses should be able to tap into the data troves they’ve created at the web sites with which they engage. But they can’t because non-interoperable data silos are preventing them.
“Most people come with a huge back pocket full of concerns about [the web and] privacy.” Berners-Lee told Webster. “They aren’t worried about their pictures being shown to the wrong person so much as they are worried about being part of a system that is really dysfunctional.”
Berners-Lee contends that those concerns are “bigger, more powerful” and very much on the mark. The issue that should be taking center stage is interoperability and how it “empowers [the consumer] to do things [they] could never have before.”
The Power Of Pods (To Save The Unlucky Skier)
Interoperability is the raison d’etre of Solid, Berners-Lee’s effort to create V.2 of the World Wide Web.
Think of Solid as a series of digital data pods that do two things for consumers: store all of their relevant data and a launch pad from which all of that data can be easily shared, in a permission-based fashion, with other users.
That data can be any type of data. It can be payment and banking data, medical data, photos, calendars, documents — the list goes on and on and varies in specific composition from consumer to consumer.
The Solid protocol, Berners-Lee explained to Webster, is “indifferent” to what type of data one wants to store there — it creates the common digital home where it can all live.
Not in the cloud, but in a secure device under the control of the consumer — living on the consumer’s personal hardware, on a USB drive or “for the tech geeks” on their own personal servers. The point, he said, is that it’s not a data set drifting in the cloud.
That’s a key point, and one that’s quite different from how data is stored and accessed today.
Berners-Lee said that all of that data is out on the web right now, but it’s broken up over hundreds and thousands of touchpoints that a consumer interacts with. One site might store and manage photos, another calendars and scheduling, another banking and on and on.
Each of those sites and apps has its own terms of service — and all with their challenges of sharing that data if one wants to take it and move it to another platform.
Take for example, Berners-Lee noted, the unlucky skier who breaks a leg on the slopes and takes pictures of the injury. That skier might want to share the photo with their friends and family — to garner sympathy — and also with a doctor so they can begin planning how to get the leg fixed up.
Today the skier with the bum leg can upload photos of the gory details to social media — and perhaps (if their healthcare provider is very on top of their technical game) into their digital portal so they can start a case file.
That is a bit lumpy, but gets the job done.
When the friction becomes powerful enough to pull everything to a halt, however, is five years later when the same skier falls again and breaks the same leg — and has changed healthcare providers.
That old image and case data is suddenly locked up in an old silo — and there is no simple way to manage get it and share it with the new medical team.
What the Solid protocol wants to make possible is for the unlucky skier to have easy, uninterrupted access to that data, so when it is time to move it to a new provider, the unlucky skier isn’t doing a lot of digital archaeology to find their data and send it along.
“Instead it’s as simple as finding the doctor’s data pod, offering up access — and then sending files along with a note that says ‘Hey doc, here’s what I did to my knee,’” Berners-Lee noted.
The trouble we all face, he said, is that even when the centralized data silos are good actors and protect the data exactly as they are supposed to, the ultimate experience for the end user still often ends up being miserable, friction-filled and inefficient.
Every person at some point ends up the unlucky skier trying to make their data, that they own, move between point A and point B — only to find that they can’t because those two points aren’t interoperable.
And, of course, the recent past has showed the those who control the data silos can’t always be counted on to be good actors.
There is an old adage that if one builds a better mousetrap, the world will build a path to their door. The problem with that adage is that it discounts the fact that if people are really used to the old mousetrap — and the new one requires they do something very different or difficult — they are probably going to stick with the thing that works less well. Any number of innovators with genuinely useful new twists on old ideas have found those good ideas shipwrecked on the rocks of habit.
And the Solid protocol, Webster pointed out, requires a pretty big departure for users in how they manage their lives online. They may not love the results of those big silos holding all that data — but that doesn’t mean they are keen to create and maintain a central trove of their own, or learn a whole new model of interacting with the entire digital world. In the case of the unlucky skier, for Solid to be useful, the doctor would have to have a pod too. Pods need to talk to pods.
A case in point, at least so far, is the experiment with open banking in the U.K. — which is the law of the land but something consumers haven’t jumped on.
Plus, there are petabytes of data out there that would need loading into the Solid pods — and that will be quite a project for any one human or firm with a reasonably sized digital footprint.
Berners-Lee agreed, and noted that while perhaps the team at his startup Inrupt might quite like it if everyone abruptly picked up digital stakes and migrated the whole of their online lives into the Solid protocol, there is no reason to expect that will happen. People also didn’t adopt the World Wide Web overnight, either, he said, and for a while it was a staple of late-night comedy jokes.
But, he noted, if Solid can create a desirable enough ecosystem for developers that the apps that live within it — and work perfectly interoperably with the data that lives within user pods — can create real value for users, they can make a competitive offering against how things are. That doesn’t mean people and firms will switch everything all at once, but one application at a time as they become more familiar with how pods work.
“Suppose [a person] finds an app that does what Doodle does and gives the Solid version a try,” Berners-Lee offered, “and they find meetings do work better. “From there they find a board management app, or a calendar app,” developing a user base in much the same way networks tend to — with a single utility case that grows bit by bit.
Moving stuff en masse over can become a part of that — but it isn’t critical that it happens first.
It is not a sure thing, of course. Solid, it seems, will rise and fall on the developers it can attract to an untested protocol for managing digital data. Without apps that can offer the types of services and convenience consumers already routinely expect, it will be hard to persuade users to give Solid a try – which will make it hard to attract more developers.
There are only so many gifted developers in the world, he said, and attracting them isn’t as easy for a startup, even one with the inventor of one of the greatest inventions of all mankind at the helm. Firms like Amazon, Apple and Google have nearly unlimited cash reserves, and startups in general — and Solid in particular — do not.
But Berners-Lee is confident that something new and better can emerge, mostly because he believes it needs to.
His beloved invention, The World Wide Web, he noted, is at a tipping point — and users are beginning to see that they can and should expect more from it. It won’t be an easy climb — and they are still in the early part of the journey.
Berners-Lee said that the time and the will is now to build something together, and he and his team are working through the inevitable challenges that come with building new protocols that could creatively destruct what he built 30 years ago.
“I think we know we can build something better,” he said, adding, “and if you know developers, send them our way.”
Talk about a pretty cool call to action.