Web inventor wants a web built on solid data principles

Tim Berners-Lee has urged app developers to be courteous to users’ data privacy, saying users should own their own data and apps need to interoperate

Speaking at the start of Transforming Tomorrow’s Travel (T3CH) conference in Madrid, web inventor Tim Berners-Lee described his vision of a new approach to the web.

Recalling the web 30 years ago, Berners-Lee said: “There was a time when the model for using the web was each of us had our own web page. I had a web page. I had a blog, and people would reward me by linking to it.”

In this model, he said people curated content and only linked back to blogs they rated. This was the situation in the first decade of the web. “Just by making a blog, we were getting something for nothing. Humanity was becoming a wonderful collaborative space.”

Today, however, Berners-Lee said power has shifted from users to major web businesses: “It is no longer about following links; it is all about the algorithm.” In February, to mark the 30th anniversary of the web, he published an open letter describing why humanity needs to figure out how to patch the problems with the web.

Rather than everyone having their own blog on the web, Berners-Lee said a few major firms now own the web.

“When you speak to young kids, it’s all about a small number of social networks. The wonderful feedback of the blogosphere is lost. Now, it is more dystopian. Only if you work for the monopolies can you get your ideas into products,” he said. “People are not getting rewarded for having a great blog. [They are instead] making money through the ad engines.”

For Berners-Lee, these advertising engines, which serve up adverts on popular sites, incentivise people to create content that generates more clicks. “The Google algorithm taught them fake news,” he said.

What this means, according to Berners-Lee, is that the system of the web is broken. The web started out as a collaborative platform for humanity, but this well-meaning model now encourages people to lie to encourage more clicks on their websites.

Read more about the 30th anniversary of the web

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Berners-Lee said he was collaborating on a project dubbed Solid, which aims to shift the power of the web back to users by giving them control of their personal data.

Describing how the system being explored at MIT would work, he said: “Suppose you had a world where you control all your data. All of the places you want to store your data speak the same language.”

The idea behind Solid is that all of these data stores provide read and write access and authorisation. Apps authorised by users to access these data stores also interoperate, to achieve something useful for the user.

“Siri doesn’t work for me; Alexa doesn’t work for me. But if an app works for me, it’s a win-win,” he said, adding that such a program works for the user and will have access to all the user’s data. It also enables the app provider to offer something that is tailored to the user. He said systems should be designed to respect people’s data.

Berners-Lee believes the General Data Protection Regulation offers organisations a way to return data control back to the user, and is not just a tick-box exercise for regulatory compliance.

“Think about the user,” he said. “Apps must respect the user. In this world, we decentralise things. By default, the user will have to be in control of their data. Isn’t it natural that my data should be controlled by me? Data privacy is the right way up.”

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