At the end of September Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, announced that he was in full swing developing a framework for re-decentralizing the internet. He’s named his new open source project “Solid” – Social Linked Data. Together with a handpicked team of experts from the MIT ecosystem, and his new company Inrupt, Berners-Lee is aiming to radically change the way web applications work.
The Giant Cookie-Monster Problem
The Solid framework is a solution that solves many problems. Some of these problems are indeed among the reasons why HellowYellow is joining the Solid Movement. And before we go on explaining the specifications of the Solid framework, the ‘what’, we begin our series of postings by giving you the ‘whys’ …
1 Today, a handful of companies like Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google’s Alphabet are increasing their market power and entrenching their oligopoly position. Drawing on near-unlimited financial capacity, they are able to buy up any disruptive technologies and stave off competition, resulting in an ever more centralized system of online service and data. One of the problems arising from such an increasingly centralized system is that it also increases the difficulty for new innovative actors to prosper in the marketplace, since they simply cannot compete on data.
2 Further compounding the problem is the fact that these behemoths of big data simply do not have to compete on the basis of providing the best service – it’s not the quality of the social feed that makes Facebook profitable. Arguably, the majority of their business model rests on exploiting their near-unlimited access to user data, segmenting and refining it in order to be able to package them as marketing services to companies that want you to buy what they’re selling. There’s a fundamental problem with the market, in our opinion, when the quality of your service is only a small part of the ruling equation. The current way of conducting business online means that you have to focus on combining data collection and service quality. As we will soon see in the upcoming section, the Solid framework enables us to separate this focus.
3 The aforementioned commercial data giants also manifest as a problem in another online market – that of providing news. By filtering, emphasizing and censuring data by means of obscure algorithms and byzantine, closely guarded rulebooks, the giants shape our view of the world. That these companies, beholden to no one but themselves and explicitly looking to benefit commercially from your behaviour online, can select the kinds of information they feed you – presents at best a moral conundrum. In essence, Facebook are the ones who call the final shots regarding what information will be displayed in your social feed.
4 A long time has passed since we gave up our data. Recent developments and regulations to the contrary – we are not in control of the data that we share when using the various online services, and for what purposes the collected data is used. Authorities have eventually started to react to this unchecked practice, with regulations such as GDPR. But the GDPR is a good example of a belated attempt to take back control. When authorities’ actions are reactive, rather than proactive, there exists a high risk of overcompensating. In fact, implementing certain well-intentioned regulations could even prove harmful to smaller companies in the online ecosystems, reducing their presence while increasing the market share of the already dominant companies.
5 A specific effect of the GDPR being implemented is that you now have to accept “cookies” whenever you surf your way onto a website. Have these persistent, annoying dialog boxes really served to make our online forays any safer? Are the giant cookie-monsters really kept at bay? Likely, a more drastic approach to the problem is needed in order to curtail it – that approach may just be Solid.