Aldo Agostinelli

Tim Berners-Lee’s name should sound familiar to everybody, like the one of a close relative. Indeed, if we can surf the net, chat, socialize online, shop online or play online, it is only thanks to him, since we are talking about the man who wrote the first server, the first client, the first http, the Html, the first website in the world and even created the World Wide Web definition!

His career background being available online, we can move on to discuss what he is doing now. Born in 1955, he is a physicist, and, over the past 30 years, has been monitoring the evolution and development of its creature and he hasn’t liked it all. In his vision, the web should have been accessible to everybody, free and neutral, a tool to boost individual cultural and financial growth and not an instrument for the collection of personal data threatening users’ privacy. He had pictured an open system and not a spy (Berners-Lee, Internet access right). Thus, facts ensued from a few preliminary statements, and he threw himself in to correct the Internet flaws through a brand new project: Solid.

What it is, how it works and what it can offer

Developed at the MIT in Boston, Solid, whose acronym stands for “Social linked data”, is a digital platform aimed at managing online data. The purpose of such project is ambitious: transforming the dynamics which currently rule online applications so that users are the only true owners of their data. It has been designed as an open, decentralized, modular and extensible platform, compliant with W3 protocols, offering several tools for the creation of  “decentralized social apps based on the principles of linked data”.

The most relevant aspect is that, through Solid, users can unlink data from apps.  This is how it works: users can take their data, transfer them into a Personal Online Datastore (POD) and then, from time to time, after having expressively authorized the operation, make them available to a selected number of apps. However, data remain inside the POD, and exclusively belong to users, whereas apps will not be able to copy them. Which data are we talking about? All of them: personal data, health records, activities carried out through social media, pictures, documents, videos and information collected by wearable devices and the IoT. And users won’t have to get mad to handle different formats.

For the sake of clarity, let’s quote the example made by  Berners-Lee himself: we all know what a USB key is. Let’s imagine we have stored all our data on one of those. When we need to use such data, maybe to access a given service or an app, we can plug the USB key in, and there we go. Still, data remain inside our USB key and the service required or the app used cannot copy them to use them for their purposes so that our privacy is safeguarded  (Solid, Tim Berners Lee’s idea to re-invent the Web).

Solid mainly offers three benefits:

·      The actual property of personal data  ( thanks to the above mentioned unlinking process);

·      A modular design allowing, thanks to such unlinking process, to move from one app to another, from one server to another, without disconnecting from the net or losing data;

·      The opportunity for developers to reuse existing data to improve or innovate apps and services

Consequences tereof

Clearly, such a system requires a redefinition of current business models, especially, those based on the monetization of users’ data.
First, Solid is based on an authorization-free protocol, like the http; second, it makes transactions between those who are trying to access data ( service providers ) and the real owners ( users ) fully transparent; third, data will no longer be used to fuel a black market with secretive third parties operating in the dark: data are used only to make apps and services work. Finally, as I explained some time ago, it is about time users were involved in the “value circle”. Solid could be the way for users to select who to allow to use their data and in exchange of which benefits.

The system has already proven pretty successful. The point is, in order to be efficient, it must be adopted by more than just a few enthusiasts. It has got a long way to go. However, the Web may be surprisingly fast in adopting new technologies.  Anyways, if data are the new oil, with Solid, users are finally going to be the ones to decide how to extract it and use it.

What about Solid? Do you like this idea? Tweet @agostinellialdo.

To find out more about the digital world, you may read my latest book entitled: “People Are Media” 

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Aldo Agostinelli