The inventor of the Web wants to fix what has proven to be one of the network’s most significant weak points.
When Tim Berners-Lee began releasing the first Web software 30 years ago, the Web was primarily a platform for publishing information — creating websites that showcased a scientific project or information about a company’s products. But today’s Web is populated by companies that want to hoover up your data, whether it’s a dating site that wants to know about your hobbies or a bank that wants financial information to quote you a mortgage interest rate.
And once you click the “enter” button to hand over that data, you have zero control over what happens next. It might be sold, stolen, or shared without your knowledge. The solution that Berners-Lee has helped develop, initially at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now at a Boston-area startup called Inrupt Inc., proposes a major change in how personal data are stored that would give you much more control.
Last month, the three-year-old company started selling its technology to large organizations. But will businesses buy it without somehow being forced?
First, a little background: MIT lured Berners-Lee from Switzerland, where the Web was created, to Cambridge in the mid-1990s by providing a home for the World Wide Web Consortium, a standards organization dedicated to supporting the evolution of the Web without having it fragment into incompatible technologies. (Berners-Lee was knighted in 2004 for the creation of the Web, so technically he’s now Sir Tim.) And he has not been involved with many startup ventures. One, Curl Corp., sought to commercialize a Web programming language developed at MIT in the early 2000s — but it didn’t fly. “It proved impossible to get people to switch,” Berners-Lee says.
Inrupt is the first startup that Berners-Lee has worked on full time, while taking a sabbatical from MIT. It has raised north of $10 million in venture capital funding, much of it from Glasswing Ventures, a Boston investment firm. Inrupt’s chief executive, John Bruce, helped sell a cybersecurity company, Resilient Systems, to IBM for a reported $100 million in 2016. So this is one to watch.
What Inrupt is trying to do is provide companies and government agencies a way to deploy open-source software called Solid that was designed at MIT, as part of the World Wide Web Consortium’s activities; Inrupt will provide support and technology to help implement Solid in the real world, much as companies like Red Hat and Acquia have done with other open-source technologies. (Technically, you could go to the Solid Project website and start building with it for free — as many academics and hobbyists have already started to do.)
Solid suggests that your personal data should live in a kind of digital safe-deposit box it calls a “pod.” The pod might contain your health care records, your credit history, or your upcoming travel plans. And this pod full of data could exist on a server run by someone else, like Amazon Web Services, or on a server that sits in your house. You’d give companies access to it when you wanted, for example, a quote on life insurance or a resort stay in Fiji. But you could relinquish permission easily. Rather than handing over your data, as you do today, you’d be lending someone a key to look at a specific piece of data in your safe-deposit box, and you can get the key back at any time.
“Users may come for the privacy” benefits of Solid, Berners-Lee says, but he believes “they will stay because of the personal empowerment, when all the data in their life is available for new, cool, powerful apps.”
Let’s say a startup wanted to look at your health history to design a personalized fitness and wellness routine. Today, you might be reluctant. Who is this company? And what’s my motivation to round up all this data for them to use, like access to a recent blood test done for your primary care doctor? With Solid’s approach, you could easily grant them access, see what they might recommend, and then revoke access if you didn’t want to continue using the app.
It gives people “the ability to use their own data in the way that best serves their own needs,” Berners-Lee explains.
In November, Inrupt released what Bruce calls an “enterprise-grade” version of the Solid software for companies and government agencies to purchase. Bruce says there has been strong initial interest from governments in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe, where regulations around data privacy are strongest. But he asserts that most companies would “love a scenario where they could do their core competency, and expand upon it, without needing to deal with user data.”
Translation: Companies could provide the services they make money providing, without having to deal with the headache of collecting and storing data.
Adam Towvim, a partner at the consulting firm Chameleon Collective, says the intensity of that headache is increasing as countries and even states enact new data-privacy regulations.
“Organizations just can’t keep up,” says Towvim, who previously ran TrustLayers, an MIT spin-out focused on data monitoring. “It’s as if you were trying to build an infinite number of homes, and cities and towns were changing the building codes along the way. A chief privacy officer said to me the other day, ‘I can’t hire enough lawyers.’ ”
But Towvim says the key question Inrupt will face as it begins selling the Solid system globally is what incentive do big companies or government agencies have to “change the way they collect and use data? It’s all about the bottom line for any organization.”
They want technology to help them save money, make money, or as Bruce and Berners-Lee say, get access to more of our data than we give them today — while still letting us manage those keys.
Bruce acknowledges that the Solid technology can be applied in lots of different industries, and so “the big challenge for a company like mine is, where are you going to start? We’ll have to narrow our field of vision for 2021.” Inrupt has 28 employees, five of whom work in the Boston area. Bruce, who is based in Newburyport, says the company may seek to raise additional money in 2021.
What would help Inrupt get moving in 2021? It could be “a groundswell where the masses of people are concerned about data,” says Inrupt investor Rudina Seseri of Glasswing. “It could be some new regulation, and it could be some front-page crisis” — remember Cambridge Analytica and Facebook? — “that brings the subject to everybody’s mind.”
Getting a better grip on our personal data sounds great, in concept. But it will be a big job for Inrupt to take that concept and sell it successfully.