By Rania Hassan

Privacy is a thing of the past. At least, that is what we’ve come to believe. With giants such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple dominating the technological world, knowledge, and therefore power, has been consolidated. Personal data is a public swimming pool, with far too many questionable sources diving in with leisure. A few years ago, we were amazed at what a quick Google Search could yield about a person. Now, that’s the least of our problems. 

Tim Berners Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web we rely on so steadfastly today, presents a different vision for the future of the internet: personal data pods to counter the “silos” commanding the flow of personal information. Berners-Lee and John Bruce founded Inrupt to create a business ecosystem that could support Solid – a privatization project. Berners-Lee conceived of Solid as a means of ‘correcting’ the Web. Instead of entrusting large companies with personal data (including credit card expenditure, location, and internet history), they plan to hand the reins back to the individual. These pods, each “an individual data safe”,  allow one to store their own data in a tiny portion of server space and control who can access it. Granting access to another individual or company allows them to use or process the information, but not store it and use it for their own purposes as they can today. 


Gathering, storing, and exploiting users’ information without their express permission is much of the reason Inrupt began this undertaking. Many of us are aware of the easy access we grant major corporations, the windows and doors we leave wide open when we click “Accept”. Facebook, for instance, controls platforms like Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp. And with all these major platforms under their ever-growing umbrella, Facebook is privy to all sorts of personal information. This data is liable to misuse or mismanagement; for instance, Facebook gathered private information such as the weight, blood pressure, and ovulation status of both users and non-users, and shared this data, along with much more contained in millions of Facebook profiles with Cambridge Analytica. The data analytics firm used this illegally-acquired data to create targeted ads for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign. Advertisements intended to deter them from casting their vote found their way to Hillary Clinton supporters, while conservative voters were targeted with messages reinforcing their beliefs and policies to retain or gain their support. Another example of ‘an algorithm’ gone wrong came about recently, when Instagram began suggesting posts about diet pills and weight-loss content to users with histories of eating disorders, which could easily result in an individual relapsing.

A large reason why we are so complacent in regards to our data storage is due to the monopoly Big Tech has created over the services we use daily, to the point where there is no alternative. Since we are so far detached from the real-world effects of how our data is being harvested and used, it seems a small price to pay for the ease of using Messenger or Whatsapp. After all, if you are completely unaware that your data might be used illegally, and the results of such data analysis don’t affect you, why would you care as much if Facebook knows that you work in City X, take Bus Y, and eat at Restaurant Z every day?

Your data provides companies with a model of who you are – not just your name, age, and gender, but your beliefs, your views, your likes and dislikes, and it uses this information to their advantage. It may seem harmless, but we have seen the worrying repercussions of such a system. Facebook, for example, uses microtargeting—a technique that utilizes users’ data to tailor-make and deliver advertisements they will be receptive to. Often these ads play into our confirmation bias and, in Facebook’s case, political ads targeted towards certain people can spur on radicalization and the strengthening polarization of our society.

Solid walks a strange path between individual privacy and their own transparency. Though it is designed to help ensure the privacy of consumers, its own software is open source, meaning that though Solid is copyrighted under Inrupt’s name, it is available for anyone to use, examine, or edit. One can edit it for themselves to optimize how it works for them, or developers can modify the source code according to the terms of their license. Simply being able to view the source code, a practice not very common, allows the end user to ensure the software or program is not doing anything they don’t want it to. 

Since its conception, Solid was designed as a way forward, diverging from traditional data hoarding methods. Already, the software is being used by BBC, NatWest Bank, the National Health Service in the UK, and the Flanders government. But could Solid, for all its work, become just another part of the oligopoly that reigns over technology and data today? According to Inrupt, “No. Solid is not a company, it is an open standard.” Solid’s main platform is that it provides the ability to make informed choices about our data: with whom to share it, how much, and the option to revoke access. 

Ultimately, the choice rests with you. Data security and privacy are not impossible, but can only be obtained by the conscious decision to do so. You are at your liberty to choose control or to trust in Big Tech companies. But the World Wide Web needs change, is changing in front of us. The fork it follows, though, remains to be seen.

Works Cited

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