Nathan Mladin

Can Sir Tim Berners-Lee save our privacy?

Can Sir Tim Berners-Lee save our privacy?
Tim Berners-Lee (Getty)
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‘Every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.’ – a 'nasty little song', as Sting himself called it, about a romance turned creepy, but also a grim if fitting description of what most of us know by now: that our lives, including our moods and movements, spending habits, fitness and fears are almost continually tracked, recorded, and analysed. Our data is scraped for profit and, often, for hidden purposes. Privacy is undoubtedly under heavy attack today.

There is increasing unease about this state of affairs. Governments and regulators on both sides of the Atlantic, are trying to rein in the power of Big Tech. But so far, despite some notable achievements, not least Europe’s GDPR legislation, pervasive extraction of our data continues apace.

Enter Tim Berners-Lee, the so-called father of the internet. Sir Tim’s vision had always been to create an open, collaborative, inclusive world wide web. But after it went – or rather it was led – astray, he’s returned to shepherd it back in a democratic direction. He spent the last two years developing Solid, an open-source platform designed ‘to restore the power and agency of individuals on the web.’

Firmly within the ‘data sovereignty’ school of thought, Solid helps individuals to keep their data secure in a Personal Online Data Store (or Pod), and exercise full control over who has access to it and on what terms. Early adopters include the NHS, the Flanders government, and NatWest, though the ambition is to make it widely accessible, even turning it into the infrastructure for the internet as it was always meant to be (internet 3.0?).

In many ways, it’s a welcome innovation. There is a dearth of solutions to fix the huge power imbalance between tech giants and individuals. Regulation is often slow and clunky. But for all of Solid’s potential in getting our privacy back, there are a few questions to ask. Apart from the issue of scale, and the likelihood of achieving it, is it reasonable to expect that everyone will become a ‘data entrepreneur’, that we’ll all be constantly managing our data production, access and sales? A lot depends on ease of use. 

There’s also the question of where the privacy line is drawn. Would data hubs enable individuals to hide criminal activity? The proposed online harms bill aims to compel big tech to avoid using further encryption, which would prevent those sharing explicit and harmful content on social media being brought to justice. Would Tim Berners Lee’s data pods make the job of law enforcement more difficult still?

But there’s a deeper issue. Sir Tim’s innovation fits into a wider and seemingly unstoppable trend: datafication, the rush to turn everything into actionable, marketable data, including the intimate details of our lives. It’s a sweeping project whose end or telos is almost never discussed in our public debates. Rarely do we stop to ask: what moral loadstar are we following? Do we want a society where an individual's value lies predominantly in the way their personal information can be leveraged online - a world where data drives every decision?

Tim Berners-Lee’s innovation is welcome. Privacy is important. But technology has a habit of running ahead of ethics. This time, the implications of Solid need to be thought through before it is introduced. 

Written byNathan Mladin

Dr Nathan Mladin is senior researcher at Theos

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