Tim Berners-Lee Moves Forward With His Big Plan To Fix The Web By Bringing Back Its Original Decentralized Promise

from the good-to-see dept

Here we go. For years I’ve been talking about how we really need to move the web to a world of protocols instead of platforms. The key concept is that so much of the web has been taken over by internet giants who have built data silos. There are all sorts of problems with this. For one, when those platforms are where the majority of people get their information, it makes them into the arbiters of truth when that should make us quite uncomfortable. Second, it creates a privacy nightmare where hugely valuable data stores are single points of failure for all your data (even when those platforms have strong security, just having so much data held by one source is dangerous). Finally, it really takes us far, far away from the true promise of cloud computing, which was supposed to be a situation where we separated out the data and the application layers and could point multiple applications at the same data. Instead, we got silos where you’re relying on a single provider to host both the data and the application (which also raises privacy concerns).

Despite some people raising these issues for quite some time, there hasn’t been much public discussion of them until just recently (in large part, I believe, driven by the growing worries about how the big platforms have become so powerful). A few companies here or there have been trying to move us towards a world of protocols instead of platforms, and one key project to watch is coming from the inventor of the web himself, Tim Berners-Lee. He had announced his project Solid a while back: an attempt to separate out the data layer, allowing end users to control that data and have much more control over what applications could access it. I’ve been excited about the project, but just last week I commented to someone that it wasn’t clear how much progress had actually been made.

Then, last Friday, Berners-Lee announced that he’s doubling down on the project, to the point that he’s taken a sabbatical from MIT and reduced his involvement with the W3C to focus on a new company to be built around Solid called inrupt. inrupt’s new CEO also has a blog post about this, which admittedly comes off as a bit odd. It seems to suggest that the reason to form inrupt was not necessarily that Solid has made a lot of forward progress, but rather than it needs money, and the only way to get some is to set up a company:

Solid as an open-source project had been facing the normal challenges: vying for attention and lacking the necessary resources to realize its true potential. The solution was to establish a company that could bring resources, process and appropriate skills to make the promise of Solid a reality. There are plenty of examples of a commercial entity serving as the catalyst for an open-source project, to bolster the community with the energy and infrastructure of a commercial venture.

And so we started planning inrupt – a company to do just that. Inrupt?s mission is to ensure that Solid becomes widely adopted by developers, businesses, and eventually ? everyone; that it becomes part of the fabric of the web. Tim, as our CTO, has committed his time and talent to the company, and I am delighted to be its chief executive. We also have an exceptional investor as part of the team.

I’m certainly hopeful that something significant comes of this, as it truly is an opportunity to move the internet into that kind of more distributed, less centralized/silo’d world that shows off the true power of the web. I have heard some grousing among some people that this is just Tim Berners-Lee just rebranding the concept of the Semantic Web that he started pushing nearly two decades ago, without any real traction. And, of course, there have been plenty of other attempts over the decades to build these kinds of systems. As it stands right now, there are a few other projects that are getting some traction, including the more distributed social platform Mastodon or some of the ideas that have come out of IndieWeb.

That said, we may finally be entering an era where both users and companies alike are recognizing the benefits of a more distributed web and the downsides of a more centralized one. So it really does feel like there’s an opportunity to embrace these concepts, and it’s good to see the founder of the world wide web ramping up his efforts on this. If it produces real, workable solutions, that would obviously be fantastic, but at the very least if it gets more people just thinking about these concepts, that would also be useful. So, this should be seen as big news for anyone concerned about the powers of the largest internet companies (especially if you’re skeptical about government trying to step in to deal with those companies when they don’t know what they’re doing). While the details and implementation will matter quite a bit, it’s exciting to see more movement towards a world in which the data layer is not just separated out, but where end users will be able to fully control that layer themselves, and potentially choose which apps can access what (and for how long). It certainly opens up a real opportunity to bring back the early promise of a truly decentralized web… and that would be a web built on protocols rather than centralized, silo’d platforms.

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Comments on “Tim Berners-Lee Moves Forward With His Big Plan To Fix The Web By Bringing Back Its Original Decentralized Promise”

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36 Comments
Eazely Block says:

Won't work unless allowed. Easily blocked. No traction.

As you hedge.

I note that you use generic terms rather than the specific corporations in the piece I read? Why is that? Specifics would punch up the piece.

Anyhoo, technically, however, it just tries to hand-wave the necessity for root servers. I doubt distributed directories can be done at all reliably, that’s WHY root servers exist. — Not to mention the complete lack "security" if anyone can maintain directories.

WON’T HAPPEN OUTSIDE THE LAB.

The Internet IS working as intended, dominated by global mega-corps, for surveillance by the state through fronts called "corporations". Any regular reader here will know who opposes that corporatism and who advocates it, who just meekly accepts.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

Given how you are likely using a device manufactured and sold by a corporation to access the Internet through a connection supplied by a corporation, and given that you likely see no irony in saying you oppose corporatism while simultaneously giving corporations your money just so you can say that here, you might be more accepting of it than you could ever bring yourself to believe.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

I saw a non-tech article on this a few days ago. I thought they were trying to sell a centralized cloud space for personal data – login name, passwords, etc. It started with the usual “Are you tired of having to remember lots of names and passwords to get to your favorite sites?” and went on from there.

Shotgun marketing, I suppose.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m not sold. On the "about" section, it sounds like you’ll have your data either on a 3rd party cloud (not as secure) or at home (What about the "no servers" rule a lot of ISPs have? How often will this information be accessed?).

Maybe I’m reading it wrong, but it sounds like it’s selling itself as more of a "drop-in" for providing your personal information. Who’s to say it won’t be abused as pretend "opt-in"s for data on your smartphone currently are? Won’t give us that piece of data? No service for you, then.

Surprised you haven’t really talked about IPFS. It’s still in alpha, true, but it seems like the kind of distribution model for web pages or data sharing people (at least those lucky enough to have true unlimited data plans) could more easily support. It’s optional if you’re providing personal data with that webpage or video or image set.

Solid sounds like it’s just an app that will store your personal information, it can’t be anything else if it’s saying it’ll be an easier way to sign in with Facebook and Google. Sort of a semi-decentralized Facebook (3rd party providers are already lining up to provide this service on the cloud).

I’m also guessing the links of Solid accounts could also be spidered through by unscrupulous parties to determine your personal associations; there’s always something waiting to be exploited in any system.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

That’s more than I got. Looking over their site, I don’t really have a clue what it is. There are some examples of…stuff…but where are the protocols? What’s the data model? Is there software people need to download?

I don’t see any actual information in the linked pages, just marketing and vague aspirations. Which is the same impression I got when people were talking about "the semantic web". Or "web 2.0" for that matter.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It sounds like Solid’s plan is to have the data stored in a complete form in at least one place, though. Do we really want a system like that for our personal information, when most current uses of distributed data is meant to create duplicates of the same information for easier access by more people?

Anonymous Coward says:

Be the change you want to be in the world

Really I think the solution to decentralize the web lies in the users and not any special effort. Look at how encrypted chat applications caught on and Tor. Orient your program around websites – link your own git server hosted wherever you damn please instead of github. It probably won’t be as popular or widespread but that has its own perks in getting more ‘old style’ internet of not having to stick to the lowest common denominator. It varies by application for what is feasible.

Tim Berners-Lee’s idea is a fool’s errand for trying to help privacy in itself and seems to miss the basics of networking like ‘never trust the client’ by what it is being sold for. The fundamental thing about data is that anybody can copy it and not stick it with the platform. There is nothing stopping companies from keeping their own records in addition to what they put in except some sense of politeness. It may still prove useful for some things but not for anything that he wants. By all means have a decentralized platform to coordinate your data with all of the things you want to share with everyone else, if you want the online storefronts to know that you are a fan of heavy metal, use Debian, prefer Samsung phones, and read 17th century French philosophers so they give more relevant responses in a way is a transparent and consent based which as a bonus includes aspects that are relevant to you and that you want to disclose. As opposed to creepster targeted ads that only manage to prove they have been stalking you by giving results related to the last thing you searched on a completely different website.

Greg says:

great idea. looks like they are going to screw it up

While I hope this works out, I’m a little concerned by the “standards” approach – especially with RDF as that thing has failed a hundred times because no one wants to use it. I feel like I’ve seen this idea pop up here and there though and hopefully we’ll get something although the only approach I’ve seen and liked is happening at nudge.io , but they havn’t been getting as much attention as inrupt. I hope they get more awareness as its starting to look like a vhs vs betamax situation at the moment.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’ve looked into TBL’s ‘solution’ to A problem. It’s a solution to the wrong problem. The actual problem is social and political, not technical, and it won’t be fixed by technical solutions.

The problem is that many (most?) people like convenience and value their time and simplicity of solutions over their privacy. This has always been the case.

One stop shops are extremely popular and generally make considerably more money than specialty shops that cater to particular clients. This is the Wal Mart Problem. Only now it’s migrated online to giants like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Steam, etc.

The basic problem is this: When offered easy and convenient solutions for either free or very inexpensive, most people are going to pick easy and convenient with ‘good enough quality’ (Wal Mart) over expensive and similar or better quality but less convenient (Mom & Pop specialty). This is what ended up making ghost towns of a lot of small town downtowns back in the 70s & 80s. Wal Mart and a mall would come to town, Wal Mart would undersell everyone while the malls would draw the remaining big box brands (Sears, JC Penny, Dillard’s) out to the outskirts of towns. Downtown couldn’t compete and the shops went under, no one replaced them because no one could get enough business once the traffic was going elsewhere.

The same phenomenon is at work on the web. Amazon is basically the Wal Mart of Internet commerce while Facebook and Google have dominant positions with services that are easy, ‘free’, and all your friends are already using them. Malls were as much a social phenomenon as economic- you’d go there to see a movie, have a meal, and talk to your friends and that’s what’s happening with Facebook and Google services.

The only way to compete with this is either regulatory: enact ordinances that limit or ban Wal Mart and mall construction, or in the Internet case, restrict use on the actual products – which in this case are the accumulated customer data; or it’s creating services that don’t have hidden gotchas. Out Wal Marting Wal Mart, in essence. Or recreating the space such that it doesn’t compete at all (parks, or non-retail zoning, as examples.) Such efforts have been done to various degrees of success. But frankly, centralization is a fact of life. There are political, social, and resource reasons for trends towards centralization and forming monopolies. TBL’s solution addresses none of them.

Charles Wegrzyn (profile) says:

Re: Agree

I’ve always thought the better approach was to embed “everything” in the home router – from VoIP end points to replacements for Facebook.

Of course one is faced with the issue of finding the resource for a specific user. DNS is already “there” with some tweaking. I should be able to say: Find social media for X, and have it point me to Facebook or my own implementation”. If this were the case we wouldn’t even need Google’s search engine for it.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I’m guessing this is the same person who, in comments on another recent article, claimed that only a handful of people – presumably, site regulars – actually flag comments (as any of the three) and characterized the assertion/impression/appearance/etc. that it’s done by the community as being a sham.

Or that’s how I parsed those comments, anyway. As to whether that’s the intended interpretation, your guess is as good as mine.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Oh absolutely, I mean it’s not like he wrote an entire article about it when it happened…

If Mike didn’t feel the need to bring up his history perhaps it’s because the focus is more on the idea rather than the person. Even a sell-out can have a good idea every so often, and if all you’re focused on is the person you miss the opportunity to examine the idea to see how good and/or viable it is.

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