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Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee wants to give you your data back

But in his internet vision, you'll have to pay for services no longer subsidized by advertising.

World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee
World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee speaks at the Oktane 2019 conference.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

Tim Berners-Lee, who three decades ago invented the World Wide Web, has a utopian vision despite all the online dystopia.

He's backing open-source technology called Solid -- and a startup called Inrupt that hopes to commercialize it -- that's designed to pry your data out of the hands of those who'd strip-mine it for targeted ads and political manipulation schemes. By storing that data in online repositories called Solid pods that you control, you could share it with those you wish and keep everybody else from prying. Facebook Schmacebook.

"We want to use this 30-year point to do a mid-course correction," Berners-Lee said. "Were seeing a huge backlash against the dystopia of the tech world out there."

He made his case at Oktane 2019, a conference in San Francisco from the company Okta that focuses on online identity and authentication technology. But calling for reform of the web has been something of a stump speech for Berners-Lee, who 30 years ago wrote and shared the initial software that enabled people to publish their own websites and read others'.

Berners-Lee has been calling for improvements to the web for years and has added fake news and election tampering to his list of ills. On the World Wide Web's 30th birthday earlier this year, he urged collective action to fix its problems. He's hoping Solid will be a better foundation.

To get to that future, he'll have to coax a lot of developers to build software that works on the technology. And he'll have to convince the rest of us to be content paying our own way, because ads are an unhealthy way to fund the internet, he said.

"With advertising you're never going to get the motivations aligned," Berners-Lee said. That's a common refrain with websites and apps that must serve two masters -- those of us using them, for whom privacy is desirable, and the advertisers funding them, for whom privacy makes ad targeting harder.

And ad-driven sites can be bad, Berners-Lee said. Case in point: kids in Macedonia who got money from Google ads shown alongside bogus posts on the internet. They were motivated by how many people clicked on the site, not whether there was any truth to it. "'Hillary really wanted Trump to win' was the best headline in terms of ad revenue," Berners-Lee said.

Facebook and Google didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Sharing what you want with whom you want

In a Solid-powered world, you could selectively share health or fitness information with your doctor. Your doctor could selectively share lab results with you. The owner of the data stays in control.

Later will come the apps that -- once you've granted permission and possibly paid them for the services they offer -- will tap into your Solid pod data. Berners-Lee envisions apps that span many people's pods.

"When you've got all these spaces, and you've got access controls so you can share anything in the world with anybody in the world, then we can write collaborative apps," he said.

Data management overhead

Getting from here to there will be tough. Apps could break if people revoked permission. One friend might share photos of a party with another, but the second person might not be able to forward those to another party attendee. Imagine a world where you get a lot of requests to update permission settings for different files and categories of data.

But for Berners-Lee, it's trouble worth having. No more Cambridge Analytica trying to harvest millions of users' data for political analysis, no more losing everything you've published when Google decides to shut down Google Plus

"The Solid project is about turning the way the web works upside-down," Berners-Lee said.