Making a Safe Web

Tim Berners-Lee was one of the founders of the Internet and implemented the first successful communication between a client and a server using HTTP in 1989. He’s always been a proponent for an open Internet and doesn’t like how the web has changed. The biggest profits on the web today come from the sale of customer data.

Berners-Lee has launched a new company along with cybersecurity expert John Bruce that proposes to ‘restore rightful ownership of the data back to every web user”. The new start-up is called Inrupt which is proposing to develop an alternate web for users who want to protect their data and their identity.

Berner-Lee has been working at the Computer Sciences and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT to develop a software platform that can support his new concept. The platform is called Solid, which has the main goal of decoupling web applications from the data they produce.

Today our personal data is stored all over the web. Our ISPs make copies of a lot of our data. Platforms like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter gather and store data on us. Each of these companies captures a little piece of the picture of who we each are. These companies use our data for their own purposes and then sell it to companies that buy, sort and compile that data to make profiles on all of us. I saw a disturbing statistic recently that there are now up to 1,400 data points created daily for the typical data user every day – data gathered from our cellphones, smart devices, and our online web activity.

The Solid platform would change the fundamental structure of data storage. Each person on the Solid platform would create a cache of their own personal data. That data could be stored on personal servers or on servers supplied by companies that are part of the Solid cloud. The data would be encrypted and protected against prying.

Then, companies like Berners-Lee’s Inrupt would develop apps that perform functions users want without storing any customer data. Take the example of shopping for new health insurance. An insurance company that agrees to be part of the Solid platform would develop an app that would analyze your personal data to determine if you are a good candidate for the insurance policy. This app would work on your server to analyze your medical records and other relevant personal information. The app would do its analysis and decide if you are a good candidate for a policy. It might report information back to the insurance company such as some sort of rating of you as a potential customer, but the insurance would never see the personal data.

The Solid concept is counting on the proposition that there are a lot of people who don’t want to share their personal data on the open web. Berners-Lee is banking that there are plenty of developers who would design applications for those in the Solid community. Over time the Solid-based apps can provide an alternate web for the privacy-minded, separate and apart from the data-collection web we share today.

Berners-Lee expects that this will first take a foothold in industry groups that value privacy like coders, lawyers, CPAs, investment advisors, etc. Those industries have a strong desire to keep their client’s data private, and there is no better way to do that than by having the client keep their own data. This relieves lawyers, CPAs and other professionals from the ever-growing liabilities from data breaches of client data.

Over time Berners-Lee hopes that all sorts of other platforms will want to cater to a growing base of privacy-minded users. He’s hoping for a web ecosystem of search engines, news feeds, social media platforms, and shopping sites that want to sell software and services to Solid users, but with the promise of not gathering personal data. One would think current existing privacy-minded platforms like Mozilla Firefox would join this community. I would love to see a Solid-based cellphone operating system. I’d love to use an ISP that is part of this effort.

It’s an interesting concept and one I’ll be watching. I am personally uneasy about the data being gathered on each of us. I don’t like the idea of applying for health insurance, a credit card or a home mortgage and being judged in secret by data that is purchased about me on the web. None of us has any idea of the validity and correctness of such data. And I doubt that anybody wants to be judged by somebody like a mortgage lender using non-financial data like our politics, our web searches, or the places we visit in person as reported by our cellphones. We now live in a surveillance world and Berners-Lee is giving us the hope of escaping that world.

25 Years Since the First Web Site

aol-dial-up-630x354Today I was reading and thinking about all of the different ways that various governments around the world are trying to somehow control and regulate content on the web. And while doing so I saw an article that said that we just passed the 25th anniversary of the first web site. That honor belongs to the CERN research facility in Switzerland. Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist there, posted the first web site on December 20, 1990. This first web page explained how the web worked and provided a few links on how to use the new World Wide Web.

Before web sites there was already a very active online community. These were the days of dial-up ISPs and bulletin boards. It’s easy today to complain about the price of broadband, but most of us have forgotten when you had to pay a monthly fee plus rates of between $1 and $6 per hour to gain access to online dial-up services.

This was all before AOL was large. At the time the predominant web services available were Prodigy and CompuServe. These were the first two services that offered a wide range of different services from email and chatrooms, to gaming and news services.

But the real fun online was to be had using the hundreds of different private servers throughout the country. Guys with a computer and an interest in something would start their own service and their own community. I remember joining an online baseball fantasy league in the early 80s and also playing trivia online at a private server.

What is most amazing is how far we have come in just 25 years. At that time the fastest dial-up modems were at 14.4 kbps. The number of people who were active online was a few million at most. Since then we have already gone through several different major ages of the Internet. First was the AOL age where AOL aggregated so much content that they killed most of their competitors and became the predominant way to get online.

Then came web pages and all of a sudden everybody was adding ‘content’ to the web. We all ‘surfed’ the web looking at the huge variety of pages that people would post. Both businesses and people created their own web pages. I can recall a period where I was amused by using a service that would show random web sites.

Web sites also unleashed e-commerce and all of a sudden shopping became a big thing. eBay was huge for a while until it was eclipsed by Amazon. This was followed by the age of social media and social interactions. Facebook obviously won the social media war but in the early days there were many smaller social media sites that were more specialized and fun. And things like dating online became a big phenomenon.

Today we have entered the age of web video and the hours spent watching video on the web eclipses everything else being done.

It’s easy to think of the web as some sort of fixed thing, but the fact is that there have been major changes every few years since 1990 and there was always something new being done or something new being trendy. Kids today would die if they had to endure the web experience of the mid-90s.

During each of these various phases of the web there have been major issues that everybody was concerned about. For every new innovation that came along something negative was also introduced. We’ve suffered through piracy, spam, hackers, trolls, and viruses at various stages of the web’s development.

This flood of memories brings me back to my original thought about regulators trying to control what happens on the web. Mostly I find the idea amusing, because whatever it is they think they are regulating will change faster than any laws they can formulate – their efforts are always going to be a few years behind web innovation. The Internet genie is out of the bottle and I can’t imagine any way to put it back inside.