According to Tim Berners-Lee, known as the ‘father of the worldwide web’, blockchain and crypto are not a good solution for a data- and privacy-friendly internet. ‘Blockchain technology works very slowly.’
Due to the crash of cryptocurrencies, the hype surrounding blockchain, a network of computers where data is inevitably stored, is already partially lined up. Yet much of the technology world remains convinced that decentralized databases and digital tokens will be the backbone of the next step in the development of the worldwide web. They dream of a future where communities of like-minded users build and regulate their own digital applications. Web 3, as it is called, would herald the end of the current Web 2, where some giants like Meta and Google control all our data and make big money with it.
One who does not share that vision is Tim Berners-Lee (67), the Briton who, together with the Belgian Robert Cailliau, laid the foundation for the worldwide web (see box† ‘When I talk about web 3.0, I’m not talking about blockchain applications at all, but about adding extra standards to the web as we know it. We have not escaped this before, “he says in an interview at the tech conference The Next Web (TNW) in Amsterdam.
- Computer Science at Oxford University and MIT.
- In the late 1980s, he worked with the Belgian Robert Cailliau at the CERN Particle Research Center in Geneva.
- They invented the HTTP protocol, which allowed digital information to be shared worldwide via websites, with the ability to link to other websites. It heralded the birth of the World Wide Web (www).
- Berners-Lee later emerged as a proponent of a democratic, accessible, and secure Internet. To this end, he developed the Solid project at MIT, a series of protocols that allow users to give other parties access to their data.
- The principles of Solid are translated into commercial practice by startup Inrupt, led by CEO John Bruce.
The solution put forward by Berners-Lee is to give control of personal data back to Internet users themselves. He is the creator of the open source project Solid, a system of protected data vaults (pods) that contains all our personal data, where only the owner of the vault can decide if and with whom he wants to share his data. For example, if you are looking for a pair of new shoes online, you will only share your shoe size with that seller, and no other information that has anything to do with that purchase.
With us, your data remains private while in a blockchain it is public unless you encrypt it. ‘
Berners-Lee sees several reasons why blockchain technology will not revolutionize. ‘She works very slowly. You have to wait a long time to save data in blockchain. It is also very expensive to complete a transaction. For some applications, such as registering a university degree once, it is OK. But with Solid, we want to enable fast and scalable transactions. In addition, your data remains private with us, while data in a blockchain is public unless you encrypt it. ‘
Flemish data boxes
The solid philosophy is being rolled out commercially by the start-up Inrupt, which works closely with, among others, the Digital Flanders agency under the Flemish government. This will soon give any Flemisher his own data secure and is already working on a number of concrete applications.
‘Later this year, all Flemish citizens will be able to use the technology with two concrete services,’ says John Bruce, CEO of Inrupt. ‘The first is a digital relocation service that allows you to easily notify the right people of a new address. The other is a box for academic data, such as diplomas and diplomas. These are important applications that can boost the use of the app. ‘
In addition to Flanders, some major organizations such as the British television station BBC and the NHS health service are also among the pioneers of the Solid system. Inrupt will now throw itself even more into the business market. It has just launched the second version of its Enterprise Solid Server (ESS), the server software that allows companies to set up services that are compatible with users’ data boxes.
The way to mass use of the technology, according to Bruce, does not lie in inventing a few ‘killer apps’, which are popular for a while and then die out again. “Our strategy is rather in a broad distribution. We work with other organizations that want to offer a good service. Many companies have only a fraction of their customers’ data, and these customers are reluctant to release more personal information for various reasons. With our solution, they can now offer their customers a different offer: Give us a look at your data, and in return we offer you a personal service without having to mess with your data. ‘
“It simply came to our notice then. Today, as a citizen, you are approached by all kinds of services that do not exchange information with each other, among other things because it is not allowed by law. But they can put the data in the hands of the citizens. ‘
Berners-Lee and Bruce do not rule out the possibility that some of the big technology companies will convert to their data philosophy. If they no longer have to deal with data collection, they can fully focus on building the best apps and the best user experience, their rationale reads.
In addition, Solid is a perfect solution for companies to comply with European GDPR rules, says Berners-Lee. “The two go really well together. When the creators of the GDPR legislation were shown the first version of Solid during a visit to MIT (the American Research Institute where the project originated, ed.) they were amazed. They said, ‘What you’re doing here is exactly what we had in mind: giving the power back to the users.’
How interesting is it for hackers to go after the data in a personal box? It’s as if a group of bank robbers are suddenly getting involved in ordinary street thefts.
Is not storing data vaults on servers a weak point in the Solid construction? What if hackers manage to break into our box? Bruce does not see the problem. ‘Today, people also leave their data to their bank’s servers. They can still store very sensitive data offline. ‘
‘But there is also an interesting shift in thinking about safety,’ he continues. “If one has to store large amounts of data in silos, it will be interesting for hackers to try to break in by all possible means. But how interesting is it for hackers to go after the data in one personal box? It is as if a group of bank robbers were suddenly involved in ordinary street theft ‘.