How Sir Tim Berners-Lee plans to rebuild the internet
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, web pioneer
It was a ground-breaking innovation that would go on to change the world. But when Sir Tim Berners-Lee, then a researcher at the CERN nuclear lab in Switzerland, first proposed the idea of a World Wide Web to his boss back in 1989, it elicited only the barest flicker of excitement.
It sounded “vague but exciting”, his manager said.
Over thirty years later, it is clear the British web pioneer is unhappy with how his creation has turned out.
A far cry from the democratising tool he originally envisioned, the web instead crawls with data harvesting bots and has turned into a tool for surveillance and a money-making machine for the world’s biggest companies.
“There is a massive backlash we could be in for,” he says. “Every time something goes wrong with privacy people look for alternatives. People put together the fact they are being manipulated to vote one way or another in an election.”
Internet users, he says, are increasingly “frustrated” with the way they have been treated by Big Tech’s monopolies, the monoliths of Facebook and Google. “The timing of all this is building energy” for a radical change, he believes.
In Washington, the Justice Department is investigating $1tn tech giant Google, threatening it with a break up due to its monopoly over 90pc of internet searches and 95pc of mobile searches.
A Biden presidency is likely to continue to push down on tech firms due to the bipartisan desire for new regulations. The EU is investigating Amazon’s sales practices and the UK is working on an Online Harms bill.
Misinformation, such as that whipped up around the US election and claims of voter fraud, are fuelling the backlash.
Even so, all is not lost. Sir Tim is optimistic. Speaking at The Telegraph’s Technology Intelligence Live event last week, he said: “The web can become what I always meant it to be. The future of the web is a lot bigger than its past.”
Sir Tim addressed the Telegraph's Technology Intelligence Live event this week
Now aged 65, Sir Tim, who grew up in Southwest London but has spent most of the past 25 years working as an academic at Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is planning a comeback with a project he hopes will rival the original success of the Internet he helped build.
The goal? He wants to seize back control of personal data from technology giants at a moment when they face threats on all fronts from regulators and ordinary users.
“It appeals to the zeitgeist,” says Sir Tim, who has plunged into the start-up game with an ambitious new venture: called Solid.
An Oxford physics graduate, Sir Tim worked for a semiconductor company in Dorset, before moving to Geneva as a contractor for nuclear lab CERN. In 1989, he designed a way to combine the very basic internet of the time with hypertext. By creating an ever growing series of links between text files, the web was created.
But while Sir Tim, who was knighted in 2004, helped unleash the internet on the world, he has become increasingly disillusioned with the direction it has taken.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal, Russian election hacking and the proliferation of fake news have all tarnished his view of the web as a free and open place. Right now, he says, the uneven balance on the internet means that ordinary people have to share their data with apps only to be bombarded with “all sorts of horrible advertising”.
But his new company, Boston-based Inrupt, hopes its technology could redress this balance, redraw the web and seize power over data back from the titans of Silicon Valley and put it in the hands of ordinary users.
Today marks a huge milestone in @Inrupt’s journey to deliver on my vision for a vibrant web of shared benefit and opportunity. I’m thrilled that the first enterprise-ready version of a Solid Server is now available for businesses and organizations 1/6https://t.co/xKLj6g4YIt
— Tim Berners-Lee (@timberners_lee) November 9, 2020
How that works is complicated. Solid stands for “social linked data”. It is a form of web decentralisation, essentially taking information out of the giant servers of technology companies such as Google and Facebook and storing it with individuals. Under the Solid system, individuals have a “pod” that stores all of their personal details. They can then link this up to apps, which can use that data for trusted and specified purposes. A user has the ability, at any time, to revoke their right to that material.
“It is a bit like a calendar,” Sir Tim tells the Telegraph over a Zoom video call. “You have a calendar for work and a calendar for home. Some calendars are very private. Some you might only share with yourself, some might be shared with groups. The idea of Solid is your whole life should be like that.”
Sir Tim had been tinkering with a more decentralised web design since as early as 2000 with early versions used to store his own data. “I’ve done my tax returns that way since then,” he says.
In 2016, Sir Tim, researchers at MIT and open source developers began experimenting with a project that they believed would solve the problems fueled by the indifference of tech giants with their huge profits. In 2018, Sir Tim had dinner with John Bruce, a technology executive who had helped companies commercialise and sell out to the likes of Vodafone and BT. Inrupt, a company dedicated to the success of this new kind of internet, was born.
John Bruce, Inrupt chief executive, and Sir Tim Berners Lee
Credit: Keith Barnes
Over the past two years, Inrupt has gone about developing its new product, accelerating its plans since the start of the year and putting Sir Tim into the fast-paced world of technology start-ups.
“It is great being in academia,” says Sir Tim. “But in a company you can have a plan and then execute it. We were just getting set up as a start-up when Covid hit. When people were joining, we didn’t have to talk about where people were living. We continued without a blip.”
Sir Tim who speaks in a rapid fire staccato as if his mind is leaping from one thread of an idea to another, serves as chief technology officer of Inrupt. In contrast, Bruce, a Brit with an accent tempered by many years in the US, cuts a very different figure with a silky, mellifluous sales pitch.
But while it may appeal to the privacy conscious, actually building a newly decentralised internet structure is not easy. Inrupt has turned to VC backers, including the UK’s Octopus Ventures and Boston’s Glasswing Ventures, although has declined to disclose its total funding.
Encouraging adoption is something of a chicken-and-egg scenario, notes tech website The Register. Solid needs lots of users to reach a scale where it provides meaningful benefits to users and businesses.
To encourage adoption, Sir Tim and Bruce talk of solving big problems in data for businesses and governments. It has signed up companies like Natwest to build apps using its technology and is working with three different governments.
They believe they can help solve the challenges surrounding patient data in the NHS, potentially invaluable in the time of Covid-19. This has included working with the NHS in Manchester to build a new patient data system.
Inherently, the system will rely on a kind of viral nature to see its way of storing information spread rapidly. “You cannot tell what is going to go viral,” says Sir Tim, “any app could become the killer app.”
Even if this works, however, it is unlikely to solve every issue that Sir Tim has identified with the modern web he helped create. On the 31st birthday of the web earlier this year, he warned the internet is still not “working for women and girls” and causing problems from cyberbullying to sexual harassment. Last year, he launched a new Contract for the Web, aimed at encouraging a new level of best practice for the internet, which he says will now focus on “better tech regulation and holding companies and governments accountable”.
“Big Tech companies recognise they have to engage and actively contribute towards building ‘what good looks like’, particularly as they face increased regulatory scrutiny,” he says. Tech companies, he says, will have to act fast to meet the goals of policy makers and “understand their impact on individuals”.
Sir Tim and his new start-up face a monumental task. A breakthrough is far from guaranteed, but breaking up the Big Tech giants would give the plan a serious boost. “If the pieces all get broken up and the world shifts a lot,” he says.