In 1988, Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented hypertext mark-up language (html) — the language that powers the World Wide Web. He knew his invention could facilitate the rapid exchange of information globally and felt it would be a powerful force for good. That’s how it was for a while, but it didn’t take long for his invention to be hijacked, as he sees it, by a few dozen corporations.
In the intervening years, the number of these corporations dwindled due to amalgamations and takeovers, and those that survived became huge. Berners-Lee points out that between them, these giant corporations dominate today’s internet by providing email, web, social communication, navigational, and other services ostensibly free of charge. Users, however, “pay” by giving these huge companies enormous amounts of personal information. The companies sell restricted access to selected parts of it to marketing organizations enabling them to target advertisements at those same users.
In addition to advertising, the big companies exploit their vast data banks for a myriad of projects. Some of these projects may benefit humanity, but crucially their sole product remains user data. Not only do users have no control over how their data is used, but despite what many people may believe, they don’t even legally own their data.
In a March 2020 Guardian newspaper article, columnist Arwa Mahdawi, highlights this fact by recounting her own experience with Yahoo. She reports how she lost access to all her old emails when the company deleted her account because she had not used it for some time. The company, she says, did not warn her before they did this, even though she had supplied them with a Gmail address for just such an eventuality.
Berners-Lee is one of a number of internet scientists, entrepreneurs, and investors, who aim to prevent such things happening in the future by giving control and ownership of data back to the individual. They plan to do this by establishing a decentralized web. The concept known as the dWeb (which can mean decentralized, or distributed web, or both) allows direct user-to-user communications and eliminates the need for centralized platforms like those currently run by the major internet companies.
The dWeb gets its storage space and processing power by tapping into the enormous spare capacity of the millions of internet connected devices worldwide, devices like personal computers, smartphones, and those that form the Internet of Things (IoT). In this new environment, users communicate directly with each other using an assortment of specially designed email, browser, and other applications, which ensure that only the users themselves can access the data related to their interactions.
With colleagues at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Berners-Lee designed an infrastructure software system called “Solid” to run the new applications. In this new model, data is stored in digital silos called “pods” (Personal Online Data Stores) owned by users. Pods reside either on the person’s own computer or on Solid servers located worldwide and connected via the peer-to-peer distributed network, which operates without a hierarchy or central control. Nobody can access any of this data without its creator’s express permission, and that permission can be revoked at any time.
Solid is a response to one of Berners-Lee’s major concerns: that the huge amount of personal data held by the small number of giant internet companies threatens individual security and privacy. Users have no direct control over their data and can never be sure how that data is used or by whom.
User data itself is not secure since a company holding it could close down a particular service and delete or render user data inaccessible (as The Guardian article highlights). Data is also vulnerable to serious hacker attacks because so much is centrally held by a small number of operators. In addition, user data passed to third parties could exist somewhere indefinitely. So, if users delete data they would prefer no longer existed, they can’t be sure that it actually no longer exists.
Berners-Lee is probably the most high-profile individual of the many involved in the dWeb development environment. They all have one common aim: to decentralize the web and enable users to securely operate online without the tech giants that currently dominate the internet tracking their activities and controlling their data.
“The goal of the Web is to serve humanity. We build it now so that those who come to it later will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine.” — Tim Berners-Lee