Do you remember what it was like the first time you connected to the Internet?
Back then, in the 90s and early 00s, it felt like stepping into a whole new world. Existing somewhere between television and an encyclopedia, the scale of the knowledge it offered was comparable only to the lack of knowledge the general user had about how it operated.
Simultaneously, we desired to delve into the Internet while keeping our selves as removed from it as possible.
The notion of revealing our identities online – through chat sites, forums, e-mail addresses, and eventually social media – was nothing short of sacrilegious. We didn’t know exactly what we had to fear, but we knew our fear was valid.
At some point, that all changed.
At some point, we realised just what was at stake when we revealed our identity to the Internet in the form of our private data…and decided we didn’t care anymore.
We wrote our full names on Facebook.
We installed an Amazon Echo in our living room to listen in on our every word.
We consented to Google logging our every search term to better tailor advertising to our interests.
And now, across the entire world, the user’s ability to use the Internet freely and securely is at stake. Australia has adopted draconian metadata laws under the guise of better security. The United States is one week (as of the time of writing) away from a vote that would allow Internet companies to essentially limit and censor the information users can access at their discretion.
These laws, championed by big business (including federal governments), are one of the greatest threats to our right to privacy ever. Now is the time to be scared. Now is the time to fight back.
Enter Tim Berners-Lee. The name probably doesn’t sound familiar, but you know his work.
In 1989, Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web while working as a fellow at CERN. Uninhibited by patents, royalties, or similar copyright restrictions, his creation was released the following year for other computer scientists to adopt and expand upon.
The invention didn’t make him rich. Berners-Lee saw it not as a product, but as a tool for creativity, innovation, and free expression. In the nearly three decades since, he’s spent much of his time teaching on the web’s ability to create positive change throughout society, and helping make internet services cheaper and more widespread throughout the developing world.
But his vision for what the Internet would become is starting to fade. In an interview with The Guardian, he bemoaned the many threats that the Internet faces today, including the rollback of net neutrality protections, the proliferation of fake news, and the polarisation it has promoted not just online, but offline as well.
“I’m still an optimist, but an optimist standing at the top of the hill with a nasty storm blowing in my face, hanging on to a fence.”
That fence, to use his analogy, is Solid, a project based out of his lab at MIT that would return the power of the Internet back to its users by entrusting them with a piece of it.
In short, Berners-Lee is leading the charge to decentralise the Internet.
Solid stores data in personal online data stores, or ‘pods’, that can be hosted wherever the user requests. Applications and services such as social media platforms and online auction sites can then request the data – requests which Solid authenticates and distributes in accordance with user-defined settings.
The system is designed based on Berners-Lee’s linked data system, which gives each individual element of data a Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) that can be used to access specific information without leaving the rest vulnerable.
He hopes Solid will serve to wrest the Internet from the hands of those who seek to abuse it and eliminate their online competition, such as IPs and cable companies.
“If you have a system that rewards people for gaining market share, when they get a very large portion of the market share, then to a certain extent everybody suffers because innovation drops off,” he warned TechCrunch in 2016.
“People were very worried about Netscape, and then suddenly they stopped worrying about Netscape, and they started worrying about Microsoft — because it controls the operating system as well as the browser. Then they decided the browser doesn’t matter. It was actually about the search engine people used. And then they realised that, actually, the search engine doesn’t matter because people only use it to go to one social network, and people are spending all their time there.”
If the Internet is to survive, decentralisation is probably a necessity. But it will take more than the likes of Berners-Lee to raise their voices.
If you haven’t already, take the time to read up on the issue. Find out how these new threats to your privacy and freedom will impact you and your business, whether by throttling access to your website, or even by allowing your provider to charge you twice as much a month because you like to use Netflix.
In 2017, the Internet is just as vital a service to our survival as water or electricity. Do not let them take it away from us.