Google data breach + Berners-Lee’s Solid — is the power shifting?

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October 11, 2018 1:33 pm Published by

I don’t usually go for drastic headlines, but it does seem like some tides have been turning of late.

We’ve all followed the stories of data breaches, new regulations, fake news, hacks, ever-rising privacy concerns. Not to mention this week’s discovery that webmaster Google had a breach exposing private data from as many as 500,000 people. As a result of which, they’ll be shutting down Google+ for consumers.

Facebook and Google faced scandals of no small sort within months of each other. GDPR passed, and subsequent regulations are hedging their way into the US market.

But perhaps most interesting of all, on September 29 Tim Berners-Lee surfaced to announce the next “one small step” for the web. I may not speak for the masses, but when Berners-Lee pipes up about something I tend to lend my ear. Besides being best known as the person who invented the World Wide Web (how about adding that to your LinkedIn), he’s been quite on-point in following its evolution.

Curious footnote: the WWW started as a memo

As he tells the story himself from a TED stage, “I wrote a memo suggesting the global hypertext system. Nobody really did anything with it. But 18 months later — this is how innovation happens — 18 months later, my boss said I could do it on the side, as a sort of a play project…So I basically roughed out what HTML should look like: hypertext protocol, HTTP; the idea of URLs, these names for things which started with HTTP. I wrote the code and put it out there.”

And now look at us. Running whole businesses on that one widely explosive memo.

Anyway. Almost 20 years after the original invention, Tim Berners-Lee appeared on the TED stage to thank people for all their work contributing to the web so far and to ask support to push the web into the next phase.

From documents to data

Reflecting on the collaborative effort that had been the web thus far, in 2009 Berners-Lee said, “I asked everybody, more or less,”Could you put your documents on this web thing?” And you did. Thanks. It’s been a blast, hasn’t it?” He likened that first evolution to the next: from documents to data. In that talk in 2009 he asked people, governments, universities, the UN, anyone with large, unused, non-private data sets to open them up on the web.

Through data, we saw the magic of Hans Rosling showing us global development over time. We’ve seen data used to help in hurricane relief, to save a primeval forest, and of course to create entirely new industries, products, customer experiences, and interactions.

From one-way data to read-write data

Happily, we’ve seen open data in troves. But most of it has been one-way, for instance government data that can be viewed but not interacted with.

Which brings us back to: hey Berners-Lee, what have you been up to the last eight years?

Besides teaching computer science at both Oxford and MIT (again, casual), he’s apparently been working on a little side project called Solid, “an open-source project to restore the power and agency of individuals on the web.”

Built using the existing web, Solid is a platform that offers two primary benefits: data empowerment and data interactivity. It gives users the power to decide where data is stored and who can access which parts of it. It lets users link, share, and collaborate on data with whomever they want.

Next: power with digital giants to power with consumers?

All of this of course brings us back to the original question: have we reached the tipping point?

Some proponent the concept of “walled gardens,” where internet, media, advertising, search, and data power are concentrated in the hands of primarily four digital giants: Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook.

Those four companies continue creeping into our lives and homes in never before dreamed ways. But trust is waning. Earlier this year, Edelman found a “37-point aggregate drop in trust across all institutions” — a steeper decline than in any other market.

In the words on Berners-Lee, “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.”

What does internet in the hands of consumers look like?

Well, who’s to say? Right now it still looks rather swayed by those powerful forces who use it for their own agendas.

A platform like Solid, though, would usurp that. It’s at odds with the current value exchange. Instead of demanding users hand over personal data to digital giants in order to essentially use the web, Solid seeks to take one small step toward restoring the balance of the web as it was actually intended to be. We would each have control over data.

Just as we all “put our documents on this web thing” and “it was a blast,” a platform like Solid seeks data empowerment and data interactivity. Two things many of us struggle to imagine.

But then again, as Berners-Lee ended his post, “The future is still so much bigger than the past.”

Ps in case I haven’t already made this clear, it’s a pretty worthwhile read.

This post also appeared on ClickZ.

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