Earlier this week, Sir Tim Berners-Lee revealed his plans for Inrupt, a start-up intended to realise his vision of a decentralised web, which right now means taking power directly from Facebook and Google.
Facebook and Google have become the dominant players in online advertising because they have become experts at monetising the data their users provide in exchange for free services, such as email, apps, networking and apparently unlimited photo and video hosting.
For Berners-Lee, his baby has grown into a monster in which our data is used in ways most people never anticipated, with this year’s Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal being the latest example.
He has set up Inrupt to smooth the path for a web platform called Solid that hosts user data within "Solid Pods".
Pods is an abbreviation for Personal Online Data Store. Anyone using Solid will get a Solid identity and a Solid Pod. The system will give people, he claims, more control over their data and who they want to share it with.
"Solid is guided by the principle of 'personal empowerment through data', which we believe is fundamental to the success of the next era of the web. We believe data should empower each of us," Berners-Lee argued in a blog post.
He is taking this idea so seriously that he is now on a sabbatical from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work full-time on Inrupt, as well as looking for more venture funding to grow his team. While he has not discussed what, if anything, the service would cost users, his post does say that he sees "multiple market possibilities".
'Wonderful but mad folly'
Clearly, consumers and brands have become more concerned about data privacy issues over the past decade as targeting techniques have become more sophisticated and advertising has migrated online. But is Solid, or indeed any platform in which people keep their data effectively locked in a safe at home, the answer?
David Balko, chief client officer at Tribal Worldwide, described the concept of a personal data store as a "wonderful but mad folly" that he would have dismissed if anyone but Berners-Lee had suggested it.
"I admire it, but I don’t think people have got the patience, knowledge or understanding to be able to manage that… for your average person living on a standard UK income, I think you’ll have a different answer."
The problem with Berners-Lee’s vision of the world, Balko argued, is that he overestimates the extent to which people act as rational consumers who know the value of their data and will start demanding more from Facebook and Google than just free online storage space.
"The world needs visionaries like [Berners-Lee]. But I’m still not sure about this universal idea of everything being driven by data… I still buy the logic that people are persuaded to buy a brand by creative ideas that trigger reactions, not just by comparing lists for benefits based on their own information," Balko added.
Waqar Riaz, Cheil Europe’s head of data-driven marketing, agreed with the view that consumers are flocking to free online products.
While marketers "talk a lot about data protection", they are usually concerned with breaking the law or GDPR rather than worrying about complaints from customers, Riaz explained: "Will consumers ever be willing to pay the price for privacy? I don’t want Google to store my photos, but will I be willing to afford the storage space?"
This is even more apparent in the developing world, where new online-only industries are being built by people who rely on being able to use free email and free social media, Riaz adds.
Dino Burbidge, director of technology and innovation at WCRS, also questioned whether Solid would be viable, but insisted that society needs people like Tim Berners-Lee to be trailblazers for more responsible uses of data online.
"[Berners-Lee] has become the Wicker Man of experiments and Cambridge Analytica has been a real eye-opener for the dark analytics part of the web. The tracking and nefarious stuff is getting worrying unless you’re on top of it, and most people aren’t," Burbidge said. "But the question remains: how are you going to pay for it?
"Someone needs to be the figurehead for this… there are holes all over the internet that need plugging and people are ever more sceptical of just putting your trust in a brand and believing everything will be cool."
Digital bogeymen could still come good
Whether people choose to use Solid or not, there is also the possibility that blockchain could be the ultimate game changer in terms of data privacy and storage. Solid is apparently built on existing web tech and Berners-Lee has made no mention of integrating blockchain (for the time being, at least).
Riaz, meanwhile, argued that we should keep faith with Facebook and Google, which may look like the bogeymen today but are capable of being better.
"Facebook is not the same as it was six years ago; the same goes for Google, Twitter and LinkedIn. We are obsessed with what’s next, but don’t forget these companies are the final outcomes of thousands of companies that disappeared," he said. "And look at Unilever – a 19th-century business that survives today! Companies can survive through change – so why can’t Google and Facebook?"
For a longer-term perspective, Balko reckoned the ubiquity of the internet today has made us forget it is still a nascent mode of communication that has yet to iron out fundamental teething problems.
He said: "The internet is a bit like cars or flight – we’re only 20-30 years into it in a meaningful sense – and the cars after 20 years were pretty shit!"