Releasing his creation for free 30 years ago, the inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, famously declared: “this is for everyone”.
In an effort to return the internet to the golden age that existed before its current incarnation as Web 2.0 - characterised by invasive data harvesting by governments and corporations - Berners-Lee has devised a plan to save his invention. He calls it “data sovereignty” and it means wrestling back control of the personal information we surrendered to big tech many years ago and giving us all control over our data.
Berners-Lee’s intervention comes as increasing numbers of people regard the online world as a landscape dominated by a few tech giants, thriving on a system of “surveillance capitalism” where our personal data is extracted and harvested by online giants before being used to target advertisements at us as we browse the web.
Courts in the US and the EU have filed cases against big tech as part of what’s been dubbed the “techlash” against their growing power. But Berners-Lee’s answer to big tech’s overreach is far simpler: to give individuals the power to control their own data. This includes the self-determination of which elements of our personal data we permit to be collected, and how we allow it to be analysed, stored, owned and used.
Berners-Lee isn’t just backing data sovereignty: he’s building the tech to support it. He recently set up Inrupt, a company with the express goal of moving towards the kind of world wide web that its inventor had originally envisioned. Inrupt plans to do that through a new system called “pods” - personal online data stores.
Pods work like personal data safes. By storing their data in a pod, individuals retain ownership and control of their own data, rather than transferring this to digital platforms. Under this system, companies can request access to an individual’s pod, offering certain services in return - but they cannot extract or sell that data onwards.
Sounds like a reasonable solution and a do-able plan. Tim Berners-Lee’s intervention in debates about the destiny of the internet is a welcome development. Governments and communities are coming to realise that big tech’s data-driven digital dominance is unhealthy for society. Pods represent one answer among many to the question of how we should respond.