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Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, has launched a startup, Inrupt, which he hopes will drive the next stage of internet development by giving users more control over their online data.
Berners-Lee said in a recent blog post that the web has evolved into “an engine of inequality and division”, where users hand over their personal data to private companies and service providers in exchange for using products and services.
He has worked with his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop Solid, an open source platform that allows users to choose how and where their data is stored, as well as who has access to it, and Inrupt will now support the platform.
According to the Solid website, user data is stored in a “pod”, which effectively works as a secure digital USB that can be accessed from anywhere.
“Think of your Solid pod as your own private website, except that your data interoperates with all your apps, which means you have your own personal API [application programming interface] to go along with it,” said the website.
“When you post comments or videos online, your friends can view them with whatever app they like, such as an album viewer or a social feed. It’s your data, that can be shaped in any way or form. You can have as many pods as you like, and they live on Solid-enabled web servers.”
The Solid platform will also give users more control over the content of the web.
Berners-Lee wrote in his blog: “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.”
Web browsers have traditionally been read-only tools, essentially creating a one-way stream of information that can only be viewed, not edited, by the web user.
But with Solid, the aim is to create a two-way system where it is just as easy for individuals to modify and create internet content as it is to view it.
Read more about Tim Berners-Lee
This was Berners-Lee’s original vision for the web – he wanted a “read-write” tool, so that people could not only view, but create. However, the first generation of browsers that popularised the internet, first Mosaic, then Netscape and Microsoft, did not allow for editing.
Inrupt is the first commercial venture built for the Solid platform, and aims to provide the corporate infrastructure for the platform to grow.
“These are very exciting times,” said Berners-Lee. “I will be committed to steering the direction of Solid and developing its future governance. Inrupt will do many things – its first priority will be the Solid ecosystem. With the right values and a foundational corporate infrastructure, we will build beneficial systems that work for everyone.”
Berners-Lee has been critical of web giants such as Facebook and Google for their approach to managing users’ personal data.
“What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms,” he said in March this year.
“Companies are aware of the problems and are making efforts to fix them – with each change they make affecting millions of people. The responsibility – and sometimes burden – of making these decisions falls on companies that have been built to maximise profit more than to maximise social good.”
Berners-Lee added on Twitter: “Care about your data. It belongs to you. If we each take a little of the time we spend using the web to fight for the web, I think we’ll be OK. Tell companies and your government representatives that your data and the web matter.”