The internet has come a long way since Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web in 1989. Now, in an era of growing concern over privacy, he believes it’s time for us to reclaim our personal data.
Through their startup Inrupt, Berners-Lee and CEO John Bruce have created the “Solid Pod” — or Personal Online Data Store. It allows people to keep their data in one central place and control which people and applications can access it, rather than having it stored by apps or sites all over the web.
Users can get a Pod from a handful of providers, hosted by web services such as Amazon (AMZN), or run their own server, if they have they the technical know-how. The main attraction to self-hosting is control and privacy, says Berners-Lee.
Not only is user data safe from corporations, and governments, it’s also less likely to be stolen by hackers, Bruce says.
“I think we’ve all come to realize that the value of the web is embodied in the data available on it,” he adds. “In this new world of you looking after your own data, it doesn’t live in big silos that are lucrative targets for attackers.”
Inrupt’s platform is being tested by the UK’s National Health Service and by the government of the Belgian region of Flanders. The latter plans to use Pods to let its citizens choose how to share their personal data.
In October, the BBC introduced an experimental service using Pods for “watch parties,” where multiple friends stream a program at the same time. When the watch party ends, the user can see the data that has been generated, including which program they watched and who else joined, and choose whether to delete or edit the information — or let the BBC use it.
In a blog post, Eleni Sharp, an executive product manager for BBC Research and Development, described it as “a radically different approach to data management.”
Owning your data
Launched in 2017, Inrupt reportedly raised $30 million in December 2021 and Berners-Lee says it will help deliver the next iteration of the web — “Web 3.”
Paul Brody, Global Blockchain Leader at consulting firm Ernst and Young, believes Web 3 could change the way we use the internet. “You’ll hear people talk about Web 3 and decentralization as being very similar in ideas and goals,” he says.
“Owning your own data and really controlling your own commerce infrastructure is something that Web 3 will enable. It will be ultimately really transformational for users.”
Berners-Lee hopes his platform will give control back to internet users.
“I think the public has been concerned about privacy — the fact that these platforms have a huge amount of data, and they abuse it,” he says. “But I think what they’re missing sometimes is the lack of empowerment. You need to get back to a situation where you have autonomy, you have control of all your data.”