If you feel like having more control over your data, having a choice about where data is stored, which specific people and groups can access select elements, and which apps you use, then you should definitely get more insights into Solid, a new platform by Sir Tim Berners-Lee!
At 63, Berners-Lee has thus far had a career more or less divided into two phases. In the first, he attended Oxford; worked at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN); and then, in 1989, came up with the idea that eventually became the Web. Initially, Berners-Lee’s innovation was intended to help scientists share data across a then obscure platform called the Internet, a version of which the U.S. government had been using since the 1960s. But owing to his decision to release the source code for free—to make the Web an open and democratic platform for all—his brainchild quickly took on a life of its own. Berners-Lee’s life changed irrevocably, too. He would be named one of the 20th century’s most important figures by Time, receive the Turing Award (named after the famed code breaker) for achievements in the computer sciences, and be honored at the Olympics. He has been knighted by the Queen. “He is the Martin Luther King of our new digital world,” says Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. (Berners-Lee is a former member of the foundation’s board of trustees.)
Berners-Lee, who never directly profited off his invention, has also spent most of his life trying to guard it. While Silicon Valley started ride-share apps and social-media networks without profoundly considering the consequences, Berners-Lee has spent the past three decades thinking about little else. From the beginning, in fact, Berners-Lee understood how the epic power of the Web would radically transform governments, businesses, societies. He also envisioned that his invention could, in the wrong hands, become a destroyer of worlds, as Robert Oppenheimer once infamously observed of his own creation. His prophecy came to life, most recently, when revelations emerged that Russian hackers interfered with the 2016 presidential election, or when Facebook admitted it exposed data on more than 80 million users to a political research firm, Cambridge Analytica, which worked for Donald Trump’s campaign. This episode was the latest in an increasingly chilling narrative. In 2012, Facebook conducted secret psychological experiments on nearly 700,000 users. Both Google and Amazon have filed patent applications for devices designed to listen for mood shifts and emotions in the human voice.
The idea is simple: re-decentralize the Web. Working with a small team of developers, he spends most of his time now on Solid, a platform designed to give individuals, rather than corporations, control of their own data. “There are people working in the lab trying to imagine how the Web could be different. How society on the Web could look different. What could happen if we give people privacy and we give people control of their data,” Berners-Lee told me. “We are building a whole eco-system.”
For now, the Solid technology is still new and not ready for the masses. But the vision, if it works, could radically change the existing power dynamics of the Web. The system aims to give users a platform by which they can control access to the data and content they generate on the Web. This way, users can choose how that data gets used rather than, say, Facebook and Google doing with it as they please. Solid’s code and technology is open to all—anyone with access to the Internet can come into its chat room and start coding. “One person turns up every few days. Some of them have heard about the promise of Solid, and they are driven to turn the world upside down,” he says. Part of the draw is working with an icon. For a computer scientist, coding with Berners-Lee is like playing guitar with Keith Richards. But more than just working with the inventor of the Web, these coders come because they want to join the cause. These are digital idealists, subversives, revolutionaries, and anyone else who wants to fight the centralization of the Web. For his part, working on Solid brings Berners-Lee back to the Web’s early days: “It’s under the radar, but working on it in a way puts back some of the optimism and excitement that the ‘fake news’ takes out.”