Thirty years ago, Tim Berners-Lee invented simple but powerful standards for finding, connecting and presenting multimedia documents online. He set them free for the world and started the World Wide Web.
Others have become billionaires with the Internet, while Berners-Lee has become the driver of engineering norms aimed at making the Web flourish as an egalitarian tool for connecting and sharing information.
Berners-Lee is 65 years old and believes the online world has gone crazy. Excessive power and personal data belong to technology giants like Google and Facebook – “silos” is the umbrella term he prefers rather than referring to companies by name. Driven by huge amounts of data, they have become monitoring platforms and innovation monitors.
Regulators have raised similar concerns. Large technicians are facing stricter regulations in Europe and some American states, led by California. Google and Facebook have been affected by antitrust lawsuits.
Berners-Lee, however, takes a different approach: his answer to the problem is technology that empowers the individual. The goal is to “achieve the web that I originally wanted”.
Pods – online personal data storage – are an important technical ingredient in achieving this goal. The idea is that each person controls their own data – visited websites, credit card purchases, exercise routines, listening to music – in an individual data safe, usually a fraction of the space on the server.
Organizations can access a person’s data through a secure link with permission to perform specific tasks, such as: B. processing a loan application or displaying personalized advertising. You could selectively associate and use personal information, but not store it.
Berners-Lee’s view of the sovereignty of personal data is in stark contrast to the model of collection and accumulation adopted by large technology companies. But it has some echoes of the web’s original formula – a set of technological standards that developers can use to write programs and which entrepreneurs and corporations can use to build businesses. He started an open source software project called Solid and later formed Inrupt with John Bruce, a veteran of five previous startups, to help drive adoption.
“That has to do with creating markets,” said Berners-Lee, the company’s chief technology officer. Inrupt presented its server software for companies and government agencies in November. And the startup is driving a handful of pilot projects this year, including some with the British National Health Service and the Government of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium.
Inrupt’s original business model is to levy royalties on its commercial software that uses Solid open source technology but has improved security, management and developer tools. The Boston-based company raised $ 20 million (R $ 107 million) in venture capital.
Startups, according to Berners-Lee, can play a critical role in accelerating the adoption of new technologies. The web really picked up speed after Netscape released web browser software and brought Red Hat Linux, an open source operating system, to corporate data centers.
Over the years, companies have emerged and disappeared dedicated to protecting the privacy of online users. The software of these “infomediaries” was often limited and complicated, and only attracted those who were most concerned with data protection.
But technology has gotten faster and smarter – and the pressure on big technology is growing.
The tech companies have started a data transfer project to make the personal data they hold portable. Today it includes Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Twitter. The US Federal Trade Commission recently held a “data to go” workshop (something like “travel dates”).
“In this changing regulatory environment, Tim Berners-Lee and others have a market opportunity to provide individuals with better ways to control their data,” said Peter Swire, a data protection professional at Georgia Tech University’s Scheller Business School.
Inrupt insists that trustworthy organizations are first the sponsors of “pods” (cocoons). They are free for users. If the concept catches on, inexpensive or free services for personal data can emerge – similar to current e-mail services.
The National Health Service worked with Inrupt on a pilot project to treat people with dementia that will move from development to field this month. The original goal is to give caregivers access to a broader view of patients’ health, needs and preferences.
Each patient has an All About Me solid pod with information provided by the patient or an authorized relative that supplements the individual’s electronic health record. The pod could say that the patient needs help with daily tasks such as B. when getting up, tying shoes or using the toilet. It could also include what to calm the patient down when they are excited – maybe country music or old classic movies. Activity data can be added later from an Apple Watch or Fitbit.
According to Scott Watson, technical director of the pilot, the medical goal is to improve health and make the patient less stressful. “And it’s a fundamental change in the way we share information in health systems,” he said.
The first project will start with up to 50 patients in the Manchester area of the UK and will be evaluated over a few months.
In Flanders, a region of more than 6 million people, the government hopes that the new data technology can offer opportunities for local entrepreneurs and businesses, as well as new services for citizens.
The pods’ personal data could be linked to public and private data to create new apps, said Raf Buyle, an information architect who works for the Flemish government.
One possible app, Buyle said, could suggest roads and transportation to work if Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. This app, he said, could combine location data from the person’s smartphone with exercise preferences and carbon footprint reductions, weather, public transit timetables, and locations where you can pick up or rent bikes for free.
“Most of the interesting use cases will come from companies creating new apps in addition to the data,” said Buyle.
For Berners-Lee the Solid-Inrupt-Project is a project solution. He has spent his professional life advocating information sharing, openness and personal empowerment online – as Director of the World Wide Web Consortium, President of the Open Data Institute, and Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Massachusetts. Oxford.
His prizes include a Turing Prize, known as the Nobel Prize for Computers. In England, his homeland, he is a knight in the crown – Sir Tim.
“But Tim became increasingly concerned about the power of the digital world being used against the individual,” said Daniel Weitzner, principal researcher at MIT’s artificial intelligence and computer science laboratory. “Solid and Inrupt intends to correct this change.”
The power of giving individuals better control over their personal information often begins with privacy concerns, according to Berners-Lee. However, a new data contract will require entrepreneurs, engineers and investors to see opportunities for new products and services, as was the case on the Internet.
The long-term vision is a decentralized and thriving market driven by personal empowerment and collaboration, said Berners-Lee. “The final vision is very powerful,” he said.
It is uncertain whether his team can achieve this vision. Some in the personal data space say Solid-Inrupt’s technology is too academic for mainstream developers. They also ask the question of whether the technology is achieving the speed and performance it needs to become a platform for future apps, e.g. B. Software assistants that are animated by a person’s data.
“Nobody is going to discuss direction,” said Liam Broza, founder of LifeScope, an open source data project. “He’s on the right side of the story. But what is he really doing to work?”
Others say that solid interrupt technology is only part of the solution. “Outside of the Berners-Lee project, there is a lot of work that will be critical to the vision,” said Kaliya Young, professor at the Internet Identity Workshop, whose members are focused on digital identity.
Berners-Lee said his team was not inventing its own identity system and anything that worked could be built into its technology.
According to Bruce Schneier, a well-known computer security and privacy expert who joined Inrupt as the lead in security architecture, Inrupt faces a number of technical challenges, but they are not all that difficult.
And Schneier is an optimist. “This technology could unleash a tremendous amount of innovation” and potentially become a new platform as the iPhone is meant for smartphone apps.
“I think there is a good chance it will change the way the internet works,” he said. “Oddly enough, Tim has already done that.”