Tim Berners-Lee launches company to develop ‘the next stage of the web’

Berners-LeeTim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, says it has “evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas”. This week, he is publicly launching Inrupt, a startup supporting a broader movement among developers around the world to decentralise his creation.

According to a profile in Fast Company magazine: “In other words, it’s game on for Facebook, Google, Amazon. For years now, Berners-Lee and other internet activists have been dreaming of a digital utopia where individuals control their own data and the internet remains free and open. But for Berners-Lee, the time for dreaming is over.”

In a blog post published at the weekend, Berners-Lee wrote: “Today, I believe we’ve reached a critical tipping point, and that powerful change for the better is possible – and necessary.

“This is why I have, over recent years, been working with a few people at MIT and elsewhere to develop Solid, an open-source project to restore the power and agency of individuals on the web.

“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.

“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.

“Solid unleashes incredible opportunities for creativity, problem-solving and commerce. It will empower individuals, developers and businesses with entirely new ways to conceive, build and find innovative, trusted and beneficial applications and services. I see multiple market possibilities, including Solid apps and Solid data storage.”

Fast Company’s reporter, Katrina Brooker, describes looking at Berners-Lee’s laptop screen: “There is a simple-looking web page with tabs across the top: Tim’s to-do list, his calendar, chats, address book. He built this app–one of the first on Solid–for his personal use. It is simple, spare. In fact, it’s so plain that, at first glance, it’s hard to see its significance. But to Berners-Lee, this is where the revolution begins.

“The app, using Solid’s decentralised 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. Every bit of data he 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.”

One idea Berners-Lee is currently working on is a way to create a decentralised version of Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant. He calls it Charlie and, unlike with Alexa, on Charlie people would own all their data. That means they could trust Charlie with, for example, health records, children’s school events, or financial records.

“That is the kind of machine Berners-Lee hopes will spring up all over Solid to flip the power dynamics of the web from corporation to individuals,” writes Brooker.

Picture by Henry Thomas / MIT News.