It can be all too easy to succumb to cynicism or apathy when it comes to how our information is collected, used, and sold online. We shop, we share, and we may trade our personal data for the convenience the internet provides us.
Well, if you’ve found yourself feeling resigned to the seemingly opaque practices of King GAFA, take heart: there’s a knight of the first-order who believes we can rebalance the power. His name is Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and he knows more than a little something about how the internet works. He invented the World Wide Web.
Berners-Lee has been working on a radical solution for a privacy-first internet. He calls it “Solid” and at its core is the principle that individuals should have absolute authority over the storage and access of their information.
Tim Berners-Lee’s Quest to Solidify Privacy
On September 29th of this year, Berners-Lee posted a manifesto of sorts on Medium titled “One Small Step for the Web…”, which outlines his thinking behind Solid. Solid is an “open-source project to restore the power and agency of individuals on the web.” The core of the project works this 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.”
For the more technical, it means that the “web becomes a collaborative read-write space” where users can manage access to all of their shared information using the web access control list specification. ZDNet has a deeper dive on the technical aspects of Solid, but the essence of Solid is the creation of a standard for massively distributed, granularly controlled data online. Recognizing we can’t start over with the way the web works, Solid is designed to be “100% backwards compatible” with the current web.
With the swagger and ambition of a revolutionary, Berners-Lee intends to restore order without the consent of those companies whose valuations depend upon harvesting our data and targeting us with it. When asked about the likelihood that giants like Facebook and Google would fight this move, Berners-Lee said: “We are not talking to Facebook and Google about whether or not to introduce a complete change where all their business models are completely upended overnight. We are not asking their permission.”
Some may argue this degree of user-control and information freedom is utopian and impossible given the economic and political forces entrenched against it. But the internet has also taught us revolutionary changes in how we organize and interact with the world are possible, if not increasingly probable.
Whether Solid is the answer remains to be seen. The rising profile of privacy awareness and the willingness of intellectual experts to embrace the challenge of reinforcing our right to privacy head-on is nonetheless inspiring.