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Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid data-privacy project enters the real world

November 9, 2020, 3:11 PM UTC

Major British institutions such as the BBC and the National Health Service (NHS) are among the early adopters of Solid, a decentralized-data project that is being spearheaded by web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and that announced its first version for companies and organizations on Monday.

Solid is intended to “evolve the web in order to restore balance,” Berners-Lee said in 2018, when he unveiled the project as a reaction against the takeover of online life by data-hungry Big Tech firms.

It’s a platform that lets people store their own personal data in “pods”—or “personal online data stores.” If an online application, such as a social network or shopping site, wants to access the data, they can do so with the user’s permission.

Ultimately, the aim of the Solid project is to remove the tradeoff between privacy and the functionality that can be gained by combining data from different sources—as companies commonly do without strong privacy protections, earning scrutiny from data protection regulators in Europe and elsewhere.

‘There had to be a better way’

On Monday, Berners-Lee and his Boston-based Inrupt startup announced the release of the first enterprise version of Solid, promising the technology “will fundamentally change how organizations connect people with their data and create value together.”

“Today, business transformation is hampered by different parts of one’s life being managed by different silos, each of which looks after one vertical slice of life, but where the users and teams can’t get the insight from connecting that data,” wrote Berners-Lee, Inrupt’s chief technology officer, in a blog post. “Meanwhile, that data is exploited by the silo in question, leading to increasing, very reasonable, public skepticism about how personal data is being misused. That in turn has led to increasingly complex data regulations. There had to be a better way. The Solid architecture provides that better way.”

Solid’s various early adopters have been using it for very different things. For example, the BBC has been working on a way to improve online viewers’ media recommendations, based on their history using other commercial streaming services.

The NHS, meanwhile, is building an application that lets doctors and caregivers access data from—and add data to—patients’ pods. Patients can also upload data from lifestyle apps so it can be combined with the medical data, Berners-Lee told the Financial Times.

The Flanders region of Belgium has also been building a Solid-connected service called My Citizen Profile that lets people control the data they share with local government and companies. This gives citizens a way to make sure everyone has their up-to-date contact details, for example, and to reuse their own data that might otherwise be locked away in some government department’s database.

Network effects

According to Berners-Lee, these early deployments will “kick off the network effect necessary to ensure the benefits of Solid will be appreciated on a massive scale.

“Once users have a Solid pod, the data there can be extended, linked, and repurposed in valuable new ways,” he wrote. “And Solid’s growing community of developers can…rest assured that their apps will benefit from the widespread adoption of reliable Solid pods, already populated with valuable data that users are empowered to share.”

The history of the web is littered with open-source attempts at decentralization, few of which have gained prominence: Facebook was never bothered by Diaspora, nor was Twitter by Mastodon, though blockchain technology is doing pretty well for itself.

Solid, however, has a lot going for it, particularly regarding the leadership of Inrupt, the company that is trying to make the open-source project a commercial success.

Not only is the highly esteemed Berners-Lee the figurehead for Inrupt, but the company also has cybersecurity guru Bruce Schneier as its chief of security architecture. Its CEO, John Bruce, used to head up cybersecurity firm Resilient, which sold to IBM in 2016. Glasswing Ventures founder Rudina Seseri is a director.

As for whether the network effect touted by Berners-Lee will be enough to create a future where people genuinely have more control over their own data than they do in this era of Big Tech, time will tell.