Tim Berners-Lee’s Successor to The Internet

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I hadn’t planned on posting anything of substance, today, but I came across this fresh post from Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the modern Internet as we know it, and director of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) and knew immediately I had to share it. He’s sharing news about his latest project, a successor to the Internet as it stands in its current form. I’ll let him explain it:

I’ve always believed the web is for everyone. That’s why I and others fight fiercely to protect it. The changes we’ve managed to bring have created a better and more connected world. But 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.
Today, I believe we’ve reached a critical tipping point, and that powerful change for the better is possible — and necessary.
This is why I have, over recent years, been working with a few people at MIT and elsewhere to develop Solid, an open-source project to restore the power and agency of individuals on the web.
Solid changes the current model where users have to hand over personal data to digital giants in exchange for perceived value. As we’ve all discovered, this hasn’t been in our best interests. Solid is how we evolve the web in order to restore balance — by giving every one of us complete control over data, personal or not, in a revolutionary way.

The goal, to summarize those four paragraphs, is to create a more decentralized Internet where ones data isn’t kept hostage by a service provider. The owner of data is the individual and it’s up to you to allow services to access it.

On the surface, this sounds like nothing more than the next decentralized fad. I almost started laughing when I read the article because I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to put in the time to set this up for themselves when easier alternatives already exist.

Let me explain.

Stride defines a way for an individual to set up a “pod” that contains their data. These pods can be hosted in a variety of different places, provided the hosting provider supports it. If you’re more technically inclined, you’re likely to host your pod on your own.

On the surface, that all sounds great, but there are a few fundamental problems to this:

  1. What is there to stop a hosting provider from wanting to monetize this pod of data? Say Google started offering this service… you can imagine they’d go nuts trying to figure out a way to get ads in your face that have something to do with the data of yours they’re keeping. And at this point, how is this any different than the current scenario? Ok, so mainstream providers are out.
  2. Smaller joints could just as well provide pod hosting support. How are you going to vet them, and make sure they don’t go fuck it up? Are you comfortable trusting any random name to host what would eventually become a treasure trove of personal data, photos, emails, etc? Maybe that’s not a great idea, either.
  3. Ok, so host it yourself. That’s hilarious. No one’s going to want to do that, except for the nerd super-minority.

So we have some issues. Adoption is either difficult or looks closely like the current situation. There’s a snowball’s chance in hell that mainstream providers people will actually recognize will agree to let ones data travel to and fro off their servers. I don’t describing a web host, really, but that’s a term that would make a lot of folks’ eyes glaze over.

Not to mention the security implications. What Tim is proposing is a giant cache of everything a hacker would get so excited over, they’d need to change their pants. There isn’t any obvious explanations as to how this new standard would be secured.

One of the advertised benefits of Solid POD is the owner controls who can interact with the data therein. This is ripe for abuse, just as android apps can ask for permission (on older OSes) to touch anything and everything and there’s not a damned thing you, the user, can do about it.

As far as using it for identity is concerned, I would not be surprised if this goes so far as to be a form of identification on the Internet or financial transactions. See my “a hacker’s dream” comment from earlier.

A Solid POD server is Node.js-based so react to that information as you will.

My goal in picking this apart is that these things would be talked about, clarified, discussed. I love the idea of this type of information exchange. I would likely be the kind of person to host my own POD server for my family, but I can’t imagine many would be in that boat.

One of the biggest hurdles above all else will be overcoming the challenge of “how is this better/easier” than what I do, now? If it even remotely smells of more complication, people will drop the idea like a bad habit. If no one they know is doing it, they’ll pretend it doesn’t exist. The key is finding a way to establish mainstream support. The Internet as we know it now had a lot of these same challenges but with one major difference… there wasn’t an already mainstream high tech way of sharing information, cat photos, videos, memes, status updates, and the like, in real time with everyone someone cared about in an instant.

Solid has a massive uphill battle and I look forward to seeing how it progresses. If it can’t tackle the mainstream problem, though, Solid will end up relegating itself to yet another nerd corner of the Internet and eventually die out. Someone might even tweet abodut it.