The World Wide Web is in trouble. Born out of a need to share information between scientists working at some of the most cutting-edge physics laboratories in the world, the web was founded on five foundational principles:
- Decentralization: nobody should be able to prevent anyone else from posting something on the web
- Non-discrimination: if two people connect to the internet with the same type of connection, their experience of the web should be the same
- Bottom-up design: the web has been developed in the open, by its users, rather than being controlled by a small group of experts
- Universality: all of the computers connected to the web share a common language: HTTP, URIs, HTML
- Consensus: in order to ensure universality, the standards for the web have been developed through a transparent, participatory process at the W3C
These principles have served the web well - it has become, without a doubt, the most important public square in the history of our species, a non-physical "place" through which the vast majority of communication on the planet flows every day. Unfortunately, as the web has become more and more integral to the way billions of people live their lives, we have started to see the dangers of our sudden reliance on technology that has inevitably inherited the flaws of its creators.
While on one hand the web can be a platform where marginalized voices can be published without fear of censorship and broadcast to the entire world, it has also enabled state and private actors to target and harass people with a sophistication that dictators of the past could only dream of. There's no doubt that the web has provided a platform for some of the most useful and life-changing technologies the world has ever seen, but its system design has created perverse incentives that have lead to ad-based revenue models that "commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation". While the web is still decentralized, a small number of companies now hoard vast troves of data and have made it difficult to imagine a return to the days when it felt like anyone could publish a website on equal footing with the megacorporations that dominate internet publishing in 2020.
The inventor of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has spent the past 30 years working with the W3C to push the web forward. While much of this time has been spent developing Semantic Web technology that has yet to realize some of its original vision, his take on the problems with the web are as insightful as you'd expect and his outlook for the web is optimistic. He recently spearheaded an effort to publish a "Contract for the Web" that outlines a set of principles to guide public policymakers, technologists and users of the web as we continue to collaborate on its evolution. This lays the foundation for a better future for the web, one where anyone on the planet can access the web and use it to create and collaborate without worrying that their personal information will be harvested, analyzed, leaked or be weaponized against them in the future.
but can we do it
The Contract for the Web is an important first step toward changing the path we're on. But without a sea change in how we build the web applications that we all rely on to work and play, there's no way we'll be able to realize a truly different vision of the web's future. As technologists, we need to empower the people who make public policy to enact strict rules to protect our data. We need to start imagining futures where the retention of a user's data for longer than is needed is prohibited by law, where the massive resevoirs of personal information breached by malicious hackers on a daily basis simply do not exist. The European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a good starting point on the path to this better world, but it does not go far enough. Happily, the weather is getting stormy for anyone who wants to store user data on the web, and it seems that the general public has realized that data privacy is one of the most important issues of our time.
The W3C is already laying the foundations for this revolution. Since 2015, Sir Tim and his research team at MIT have been working toward a new web standard called "Social Linked Data" - Solid for short - that promises to unlock a new generation of privacy-conscious applications and empower users to take back control over their personal information. It fundamentally transforms the relationship between the web service providers and the data of their users. Where current technology leaves service providers little choice but to become stewards of the personal information of their users, Solid empowers users to grant web applications fine grained, revokable access to data stored in the user's "Pod" - a standardized store of data published as Linked Data. Solid will rely on an ecosystem of "Pod Providers" - specialized web services that will be expected to invest heavily in security and compliance with privacy legislation. Some users will likely choose to self-host their own Pod servers, taking on the full risk and reward of total sovereignty over their data.
watch this space
I've become enraptured with this new vision of the future of the web. Over the past several months I've been coming up to speed on RDF, Linked Data, Solid and the ecosytem of tools that comprise the current front-end developer experience. I'll be writing here about the Solid applications I've been working on and my own vision of a developer experience that can enable an explosion of next generation applications that return power to the users of the web. If you'd like to hear more, follow me on Twitter, Mastodon, or GitHub.
If you'd like to learn more about Solid and brainstorm about how the Bay Area can contribute to its success, join me on February 20, 2020 in downtown San Francisco for the first meeting of the Bay Area Solid Interest Club.
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