Inrupt, the startup from web creator Tim Berners-Lee, isn't about to squeeze Facebook off the internet, but it has attracted interest from tens of thousands of people.
Inrupt is backing an open-source project from Berners-Lee called Solid that's designed to let us keep control over own data instead of handing it over to companies like Facebook and Google. Over the last six years, fewer than 2,000 people signed up to try Solid, but the news of Berners-Lee's startup has drawn more than 40,000 new ones, the company said.
"We've had a huge uptake in the number of folks who've opened Solid accounts," Inrupt Chief Executive John Bruce said.
Inrupt's idea is to let us keep our own data in "pods" and selectively grant access to friends who might want to see what we're doing, to co-workers who need to collaborate and -- potentially most important -- to companies that can offer services based on that data. Every piece of data gets its own web address that lets others with permission understand what type of data it is and do something with it.
It's a potentially powerful idea. You'd own your own photos, so you wouldn't lose them when a photo-sharing site goes out of business or a social network adopts policies you don't like. You'd own your own comments on your friend's video. You'd be the one deciding whether your blog posts are indexed by Google's search engine and whether there are ads next to them.
That's the polar opposite of how internet services work today.
Google Photos unburdens your phone and recognizes your friends, but it does so by stashing your pictures in its own data centers. When you read your Yahoo Mail, you're just getting a view of emails and attachments that Verizon is storing unless you actively download them. Sites like Flickr, Google and Facebook let you retrieve your data, but that gives you an inert copy, not anything that's wired into the services' interactivity. And as we've seen, some data you upload -- like your friends' phone numbers -- can be used for things you might not like, such as targeting ads.
Some of us seem ready for a change. About 42 percent of Americans took some kind of break from Facebook after this year's Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, according to a Pew Research Center study published in September.
But there are potential downsides to the Solid approach, too.
Inrupt envisions us all paying for many of the services we use -- gasp! That could curtail privacy problems with services subsidized by advertising, but let's face it, a lot of us like not having to pay for Google search or Snapchat sharing or Twitter chatter.
A Solid-based web also could give us a lot of responsibility for micromanaging our data. Is it backed up? Do you want to take your ex-boyfriend out of the friend group even though that permissions change would potentially make his comments and photos vanish from some shared photo album?
We already face some of those complications today in different form, but organizing data can be a pain. Google+ let us put different people in different circles so we could interact with different slices of our contact list, but it was a lot of work.
And who uses Google+ now?
You get what you pay for
Paying for products and services might be a pain, but it aligns the interests of customers and companies.
"That's the way the world used to be," Bruce said. "You'd have a computer with two disk drives, one with app and one with data. Nobody minded buying software." Now the motives and policies of companies like Facebook are hidden in terms and conditions and often buried even deeper. "I don't think people understood the contract they entered into until quite recently."
Bruce, an Englishman living in Massachusetts who's led five startups, is in charge of making Berners-Lee's vision a reality.
"His views and mine are oddly similar," Bruce said. "He sees the future with total clarity. I try to translate the vision into business operations. How might we bring resources to bear on this to affect the changes that are going to be required?"
For developers for now
Inrupt is is trying to attract developers right now since the technology isn't refined yet to the point where ordinary folks can benefit.
Berners-Lee has been working on the idea for years. In 2009, he wrote about "socially aware cloud storage" that separates data from the applications that use it. The surge in interest now indicates that perhaps injecting a little profit motive could help advance the technology more successfully than the previous more academic approach.
Bruce didn't detail Inrupt's precise plans for making a business out of Solid. The plans so far will involve both working on Solid and offering some higher-level applications built atop it.
But Inrupt won't be the only company trying to offer those services, Bruce predicted.
"The web is about to go through a major change," he said. "If you fast-forward five or maybe 10 years, we'll reflect on businesses born at this time that will turn out to be massive and very profitable."
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