Inrupt: A Watershed for the Decentralized Web?

When Tim Berners-Lee launches a new project for the World Wide Web, it has an impact. Saturday morning I woke up to the news that Sir Tim had a new project. With an interview with Fast Company and a new website, Inrupt was born, and everything might change.

Inrupt is a startup company that will support the Solid project that Berners-Lee and his research group at MIT has been working on for a few years. Berners-Lee’s business partner, John W. Bruce writes:

Inrupt’s mission is to ensure that Solid becomes widely adopted by developers, businesses, and eventually … everyone; that it becomes part of the fabric of the web.

I love the basic idea of Solid, where you store all your relevant information in a “personal online data store,” or POD, and make your own decisions about what information you share online. If you want to tell people that you’re going to some concert tonight on some online service, go ahead and share it with that service’s Solid app. When you decide that you’re embarrassed that you ever liked that performer, you can revoke that permission, and it disappears, everywhere you shared it.

 

Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid POD (Personal Online Data store), via Fast Company

 

I’m really excited that Inrupt wants to build the ecosystem around Solid, get more developers, more apps. Ultimately, that should lead to more users, presumably leading to an Internet closer to the Web founders’ original vision.

Reactions

When I read the Fast Company piece, and read the Inrupt home page, I admit that I thought “This is really on the right track, and where do I send my resume?” I even filled out the contact form at Inrupt (before I saw the mailing list subscription link) suggesting that when they started thinking about user docs, they should keep me in mind! And yes, I’m following them on LinkedIn too.

After reading every word on their website (OK, maybe I skipped some of the developer parts), I asked myself whether Inrupt was just a way for Sir Tim to cash in on his invention. Not that there’s anything technically wrong with that, but there is a downside.

Just a year or so after caving to the Copyright Cartel on the Digital Rights Management (”Encrypted Media Enclosures”) standard at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), you have to wonder whether Berners-Lee has just become another corporate pawn.

Child of Silicon Valley

I don’t know much about John Bruce, Inrupt’s CEO. I’ll be doing more research.

What I do know is this: Inrupt seems to be following one of the traditional Silicon Valley funding paths. Charismatic founder starts company, sucks up a ton of venture capital to stimulate growth, then either goes public with an Initial Public Offering (IPO) or a sale to another big company. When successful, the end game makes the founder rich, and the venture capitalists even richer.

The Inrupt website describes John Bruce thusly:

John led four start-ups, three of which resulted in global acquisitions. John will apply his decades of strategic business leadership and experience with leading software and service companies to launch Inrupt and the next phase of the web.

There’s nothing wrong with this experience, either. I worry though.

Yet, there are more than a few companies in the world of free and open source software that manage to make money without projecting evil onto the landscape: Automattic, Mozilla Corp, Red Hat, and SUSE come immediately to mind.

I’d rest a little bit easier if Inrupt declared itself a Public Benefit Corporation, which bylaws aims to put social good ahead of profit.

I’ll be watching Inrupt’s progress with hope, mixed with a little bit of dread.

Very interested in hearing what you think about Inrupt, Solid, and their prospects. Leave a comment, or otherwise get in touch.

 

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What is a Decentralized Web? Part 1

In my relaunch post a few weeks ago, I raised the issue of building an open, decentralized web.

This paper launched the Decentralized Web Summit. It's signed by its author, Brewster Kahle, Tim Berners-Lee, and Vint Cerf.
This paper launched the Decentralized Web Summit. It’s signed by its author, Brewster Kahle, Tim Berners-Lee, and Vint Cerf.

As I write this, we mark the first anniversary of the Decentralized Web Summit (DWS) held at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. I wasn’t there, but was inspired by the ideas shared there. Click the link to see video of the keynote addresses given there, and much more information on what happened there. You may also find this Fast Company story from two of my favorite writers, Dan Gillmor and Kevin Marks quite useful.

It’s occurred to me that in the year since the summit, the term “decentralized web” hasn’t gained the traction among ordinary folk that “net neutrality” has.  In this and the next couple posts, I’m here to help.

We once solved a big problem with the internet

When the World Wide Web was born, most people got online through one of two commercial services: Prodigy and America Online. If you don’t remember, these companies offered dial-up access to news, games, and community — all of which were located inside the walls of each service. Both companies worked hard to keep you inside their walled garden, even after they started offering content from the open Internet.

At that time, your “online service” completely controlled what access you had to the information resources of the wider internet. They also controlled the look-and-feel of those resources, so even if they offered a gateway outside the walled garden, you might not realize it.

Eventually, demand for full internet access forced the corporate online services to acquiesce, even though they probably knew that their internally generated content could never compete with the wonders of the World Wide Web.

Today’s oligarchy

The problem today is not that far away from the early 1990s. Consider this:

Tim Berners-Lee, who won the Turing Award for inventing the World Wide Web in the first place, describes the new problem this way in this interview with The New York Times: “The problem is the dominance of one search engine, one big social network, one Twitter for microblogging. We don’t have a technology problem, we have a social problem.”

Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times has a slightly different list; omitting Twitter and adding the operating system behemoths: he calls them the Frightful Five: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple. Do take his survey to see how badly you’re hooked.

In the same interview, Berners-Lee identifies the results of this oligarchical control of the Web:

“It controls what people see, creates mechanisms for how people interact. It’s been great, but spying, blocking sites, repurposing people’s content, taking you to the wrong websites — that completely undermines the spirit of helping people create.”

So here we are again.

One solution: (Re)Decentralize the Web

The long-term solution would seem to be breaking up the Frightful Five, and putting users in control. But that’s easier said than done. I have long advocated that writers should have an online home of their own, but Berners-Lee highlights the problem that is everyone’s.

In the interests of preserving your time, I’ll stop now. In the next couple of posts, I hope to further explain the issue of centralization, how it affects you, and show you some intermediate steps along the way.

One more thing: Another blog for the Open Web

I want to introduce you to AltPlatform.org, another blog devoted to Open Web technologies. The founders are folks I have a ton of respect for, and (like me) think the time is right to move forward on these ideas.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “decentralized web”? Does my premise reflect reality? What questions do you have? Leave a comment below, and I’ll try to answer in a subsequent post (if I don’t respond immediately).

Stuff I’ve been obsessing about lately

The first week of National Blog Post Month (NaBloPoMo) has been a busy one, and all my planning (yeah, all of it) has not exactly been followed. Nonetheless, I persevere.

As the week concludes, I’ve been thinking about a lot of things. I’m not sure if this list may foreshadow future posts, or are just random doodles. I hope this will be informative; if not, I hope it will be entertaining. If you’d like to see more thoughts about any of the above, throw something in the comments.

  • Congressfolk are considering a major revision of the Communications Act of 1996.
    English: Newt Gingrich
    Newt Gingrich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    That year, the big telecom companies wrote portions of the bill while locked in Newt Gingrich‘s office. Will that happen again?

  • What email client should I use in openSUSE 13.2
  • Can I get an invitation to Ello before it becomes utterly un-cool? Have I already missed the boat on that?
  • Tim Berners-Lee at a Podcast Interview
    Tim Berners-Lee at a Podcast Interview (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    I am quite inspired by Tim Berners-Lee on most days. Especially when he calls for things like an ‘Internet Magna Carta,’ as he did a few weeks ago. Can we get that?

  • Is this guy right about OpenOffice and LibreOffice never, never, ever getting back together?
  • Deeply curious about this connected learning idea, but I have no sense of how I could participate.
  • Same goes for building mesh networks.
  • Too many organizations I belong to are fretting about attracting new people. Are real-life groups becoming a casualty of the Internet, or does economics play a role?
  • Should I learn more web code? What code (JavaScript? PHP? Python? Ruby? Something else?)? How?
  • Will the Internet remain a global haven for democracy? If not, what then?

Well, I didn’t want this to be a Top Ten list, but look how it turned out.

What are you obsessing about lately? Is this list the sign of an overheated brain?