Is a World Wide Web Do-Over Imminent?

Category: Future Tech

In my October 2018 article “The Web’s Creator Is Doing Us A Solid” I wrote that Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the World Wide Web in 1989, was “devastated” and “sickened” by what has become of it. He had hatched a plan to re-invent and decentralize the Web, complete with privacy controls and individual ownership of personal data. So what’s happened since then? Read on…

What’s Happening With the Web Do-Over?

The short answer, 27 months after Tim Berners-Lee announced his Solid/Inrupt effort, is “not much.” Back in 2018, Sir Tim lamented that “for all the good we’ve achieved, the Web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas.”

Collectively, a few enormously powerful corporations – Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon -- dominate much of the online world. In large part, they control what you are allowed to see, say, download and buy; they monitor your online activities and collect your personal data for their own benefit. Compounding the problem, banks, retailers, hospitals and insurance companies that we trust with whatever private information might still exist are breached or hacked.

Does privacy still exist? Twenty years ago Oracle CEO Larry Ellison remarked that "The privacy you're concerned about is largely an illusion. Scott McNealy, then chairman of Sun Microsystems, said "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it."

The Personal Online Data Pod - all egs in one basket?

But do we have to get over it? The idea proposed by Berners-Lee, and fleshed out in the Solid/Inrupt software and protocols is that individuals, not corporations, could be in control of their data. A file called a POD (Personal Online Data), would store your personal digital stuff. Your POD would be encrypted and kept wherever you choose to store it: on your local hard drive, in cloud storage, etc. I discussed this in my article “The Web’s Creator Is Doing Us A Solid”.

The POD would collect your name, address, calendar, contacts, photos, browsing history, social media data, medical information, and other online interactions. The owner of the POD chooses which entities and apps can access or update the contents of the POD. Your doctor, for example, would have access to your medical info. Data would be stored in a standardized format that allows the user to easily switch from one platform/app to another, or share data among them.

And turning the tables on big tech, you’d also have the option to sell access to specific items in your POD to advertisers, instead of them profiting from you.

Get Ready, Get Set, Re-invent?

I’m not knocking Tim Berners-Lee, or the Solid/Inrupt concept. It’s a great idea. But it doesn’t seem to be gaining traction. To re-invent the Web as he imagines, we’d need new browsers, new social media platforms, new healthcare and banking systems – all rebuilt to communicate via the Solid protocols.

A few test cases are underway, with Britain’s National Health Service, the BBC and the government of Flanders in Belgium signing on as pilot customers. But there’s little or no incentive for Google, Facebook and Twitter to kill their own cash cows and create alternatives to their existing closed systems that harvest and hoard your data. They would lose not only money, but control and influence.

And there’s the “all your eggs in one basket” concern. The POD appears to be a potential single point of failure. What if a software vulnerability, or a flaw in the encryption technology allowed your POD to be hacked? All your base are belong to them, again. Enough “secure” things have been hacked, breached and broken that I have little faith in the future of a secure online world.

Also, I’m unclear about how my data would be protected if I allowed access to a third party. What control do I have when my data is in someone else’s hands? How would I prevent them from sharing it with others? And would non-technical users understand how to grant and revoke permissions to each and every online entity they deal with? Would managing all those permissions become a headache?

The only hope for something like this Brave New Web would be for enough people to demand it... enough people to insist that THEY be the masters of their personal data... enough people to understand the real price of “free” online services and maybe consider paying for their privacy. It would also have to be 100% secure, and stupid-easy for Joe and Jane Internet to use.

Will it work? I’d like to hear your thoughts and questions about this. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Is a World Wide Web Do-Over Imminent?"

Posted by:

Richard Christensen
13 Jan 2021

Free is the key. This new structure would require a fee to make it more manageable. Presumably, but I am not sure, a subscription fee that was somewhat significant would keep the bad actors off the network. Also, you are correct Bob, the new world wide web would still have to be very easy to use. I am not optimistic that there will be change. These entities Facebook, Twitter, Google Amazon and other social media are far too powerful.

Posted by:

Greg C.
13 Jan 2021

I agree that we will never see any progress for privacy or for censorship as long as the big tech monopolies are in control. I believe Congress MUST step in and do two things. First, anti-trust laws must be enforced to break these companies up, and secondly they must be regulated & treated like a utility, because they have now become such a necessary part of modern life in order to function in so many critical ways, just like our phone service. But sadly, don't look for Democrats to do much about this without much, much pressure, since these tech companies are HUGE supporters of Democrats and the left, just ask Joe!

Posted by:

13 Jan 2021

Two quick points:
I absolutely upvote Greg C.'s comment. 100%.
There are a FEW people & companies trying for privacy, but they are few and far between. For one, I just downloaded an app called Solid (no other connection to me) on my phones and computers. It allows for encrypted calls, with no records kept. Unfortunately, both people must have the app for it to work. It's a (small) start anyway.

Posted by:

Andy Marosszeky
13 Jan 2021

I have been trying to stop the flood of ads, particularly by Google without success ... Now your daily articles are arriving flooded with Google ads ... It's making your articles almost not worth reading ... I use Opera as my main browser after being annoyed by Edge ...
Any suggestions on how to control the scourge of Google ads? ...
Andy Marosszeky

Posted by:

Hazel M White
13 Jan 2021

There is always someone who beats the system. Someone will figure out how to break in. How can one system beat the entire world? Then, there are also those allowed to share who simply "have to" share with someone else. Have you ever been in hospital and observed all the different types of employees who read your data on the in-room computer - and ask questions of you that are none of their business?

Then, I can imagine governmental organizations coming up with all sorts of "you have to.....'s" You know they and all their cohorts "have to watch your data and deeds." Gracious, even your e-mail is not private and are you going to store all those letters in a POD? Are you going to take time to.

And, as you pointed out, there is the "all in one basket" issue.

Posted by:

13 Jan 2021

Andy: to stop the continuous flow of ads install an ad-blocker extension to your browser. My favorite is 'uBlock Origin' because it blocks more than just ads, but there are many good ones available.

Note however that Bob's site is funded by advertising, without it this site would not exist. Very few sites can exist by paid subscriptions alone, this one included. Buying Bob a snickers is good, but one can not survive on candy alone.

That said, when a site has less than 50% content to advertising, the site owner is more interested in money than information. There are many such sites, thankfully this isn't one.

Posted by:

13 Jan 2021

Another great article from AskBob.
Unfortunately, I must correct the historical reference to the Oracle/Ellison quote:
During a speech for the launch event of their new Jini technology on 25 January 1999, Sun Microsystems' CEO Scott McNealy addressed a group of reporters/analysts and stated that consumer privacy issues are a "…red herring." Adding that "You have zero privacy anyway," and "Get over it."
(Sadly, McNealy's comments came only hours after competitor Intel reversed course under pressure and disabled identification features in its forthcoming Pentium III chip.)
Furthermore, during an interview around mid-2015; PCWorld reported that McNealy is further quoted as saying “Every American ought to be very afraid of big government.”: re: Privacy and personal data.

Posted by:

Robert M
13 Jan 2021

Take a look at OandO shutup for windows
along with changing to Brave for your browser

Posted by:

13 Jan 2021

Sorry! In my comment above my mind was wandering. The name of the app (for Android, iPhone, Windows, Mac, Linux) is SIGNAL. It is NOT called Solid. Yes, my mind ambles off the trail. Often.

Posted by:

13 Jan 2021

Without going into technical jargon and a bunch of what ifs. I'm all for it. Without a doubt the current internet is out of control, at least OUR control.

I already keep everything possible local. I'm sure much of my personal life is scattered around but I'd sure like a chance to take control.

Posted by:

Kathi M
13 Jan 2021

Well, speaking as a conservative and now Democrat, I would like more privacy. However, knowing much of the information was available about consumers way before the Internet was much more than bulletin boards, I doubt that will be easy to obtain.
One summer I worked for a mailer business, it amazed me how much of our personal data was readily available (late 1970's early 80's?). And it is so much easier now.

People- use email aliases (disposable types), use things like Apple pay that shield your banking info. Be smart when you fill out online forms, you really don't need to create an account everywhere, be a guest for checkout. Do you really need to fill out fun "surveys" online for social media? Do you seriously really need FBk? You can do a minimal account sharing very limited info, to be able to look at businesses that only have a presence on FBk.

And to Andy M's concern about adds, try choosing "Reader View" in your browser, that knocks out dealing with adds flashing at you. Not every site will let you click over to reader view, but it sure helps. I find the adds highly distracting and can read thru info much faster that way.

I am in my mid 70's and may not always be up on the latest gadget, but basics really haven't changed privacy-wise. You have to be aware about what is going on around you - in EVERY thing, not just computing.

Posted by:

Richard Dengrove
14 Jan 2021

We'd need a whole new society. All someone has to say is we won't hire you unless you give us such and such information. Or we won't give you that loan.

Posted by:

15 Jan 2021

Richard is right, and then some. Unless you give up certain information, unless you've had a vaccine, unless you vote for the right candidate (or the wrong one in the past) you can be denied anything by anybody.
Get ready for complete control. I hate what the Internet, and with it social media (which so many have become addicted to) because your life will drastically change. I would say more but don't want to turn my post into a political diatribe.

Posted by:

15 Jan 2021

If Google want to offer me tailored ads in return for their service, I don't object. After all, having the whole of the internet effectively available for anyone to search in RAM memory is a huge undertaking, and I could imagine other realities in which $50, $100 or more was charged each time. Still, like Sharon, I don't like the direction in which things are going. Does Windows 10 really have to send back our data 5,500 times per day to Microsoft? Should the default location for saving a file in Office really be a Microsoft server? I'd rather pay for the system and then be left in peace.

Posted by:

17 Jan 2021

As for my personal data, info or whatever they glean from me; I want a royalty paid to me. As they say money talks.

As for the web, Tim Berners-Lee is correct, it has "evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas". Emphasis on inequity and agenda! At least they could put the p*rn behind an account that only the subscriber and not my 10 year old can see.

Posted by:

19 Jan 2021

I understand that advertising pays for a lot of "free" stuff on the internet and I don't mind it, usually. However, those ads that flash on and off when I'm trying to read something, annoy the heck out of me. Maybe advertisers should consider that annoying their victims, er readers, is not a smart thing to do.

I've also noticed that just about all the advertising that is directed at me is of no interest to me at all.

Posted by:

12 Jul 2021

The "all-your-eggs-in-one-basket" is a valid point . However all your info is coming together at some place. Every popular app you use (WhatsApp, Weather Network, Chrome, etc.) is scraping your data and some place is collecting all those points of data.

Solid is a great idea. Is it possible to have more than one POD? Don't put all your info into one POD -- different PODS could be used for different purposes.

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