World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee takes on Google, Facebook, Amazon to fix the internet

Michael Braga, USA TODAY
·3 min read

The internet today is nothing like the World Wide Web that Sir Tim Berners-Lee envisioned when he invented it in 1989.

While it continues to be a place where people can interact in a free exchange of ideas, individuals and groups have lost their sense of empowerment to a handful of giant monopolies and countries that are bent on collecting their personal data.

"Once a platform becomes dominant, it is able to collect more data," said Pieter Verdegem, senior lecturer at the University of Westminster School of Media and Communication. "That is what we are seeing around the world, and it explains why we have the so-called GAFAM – Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft – in the U.S. and the so-called BAT – Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent – in China."

"The next wave is about artificial intelligence," Verdegem said. "Companies and governments will use all that data to train algorithms to come up with better deep learning models. And as (Russian President) Vladimir Putin once said, the person who is in charge of artificial intelligence will dominate the world."

But Berners-Lee and his business partner, John Bruce, have come up with an alternative to fight back against this consolidation of power.

World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee attends an event to mark 30 years of the web in 2017 at the CERN in Meyrin near Geneva, Switzerland.
World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee attends an event to mark 30 years of the web in 2017 at the CERN in Meyrin near Geneva, Switzerland.

They have launched a startup company, Inrupt.com, that allows consumers, rather than companies, to control their own data, to store it in pods and to move it wherever they please.

That means Facebook, Google or any other Big Tech company will no longer be able to extract an individual's photos, comments or purchase history without asking. All of that will be stored on a pod, and the individual can share the information with the company if he or she chooses.

"We are on a mission to change the way the web works, to make it a better place for all of us," said Berners-Lee in a November YouTube video with Technology Intelligence Live. "It's a mid-course correction to restore the values of individual and group empowerment that the internet used to have and seems to have lost."

Berners-Lee explained that he came up with the open-sourced, web-based protocols for the new company while teaching at MIT. It's called Solid and allows anyone to share information with anyone else. They don't even need to be using the same apps.

"This is the opposite way that apps are built," Berners-Lee said. "You don't have to hand your data over and then it's locked away in that app forever."

With Solid, the individual – not a platform like Facebook – controls the data

So far, the biggest deals that Inrupt has inked have been with government entities and large corporations. It has a deal with the National Health System in the United Kingdom to put health data into pods so that when someone shows up at a hospital, all their health history will show up with them.

It also has deals with the BBC to deliver services to viewers in a smarter way and with the Flanders government in Belgium.

Verdegem, who recently wrote about Inrupt in The Conversation, said his main criticism of the company is that an individual's data isn't worth that much. It's only in the aggregate that data is really valuable to a company like Google or Facebook.

But maybe that's not the way data should be looked at anyway, Verdegem said. It should be looked at as something that's not owned by individuals or companies, but by society.

He pointed to pilot projects in Amsterdam and Barcelona, Spain, which permitted citizens to decide how they wanted data to be used, whether they wanted it to be given to open-source developers so they could improve mobility services or just to companies like Uber or Google.

"Governments and communities are coming to realize that Big Tech’s data-driven digital dominance is unhealthy for society," Verdegem said in his article.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Google, Facebook, Amazon have foe in web inventor's data company