A heartwarming animated short was released in 2017. It starts with a boy and a girl. The girl operates a successful lemonade stand. The boy, who obviously has the honey-glows for the girl, watches from his unsuccessful orange juice stand across the street. He takes a break from daydreaming about his crush to focus on his stand. How could he make it as successful as the lemonade stand across the street?
He starts by plastering the neighborhood with ads for his fresh-squeezed orange juice. Crowds start flocking to his corner. The girl, noticing a threat to her business, doubles down, covering up his ads with her own. Things escalate quickly as the two cross-street admirers become bitter rivals, always striving to one-up the other to corner the market from their corner of the street. Both end up hugely successful as they expand into businesses that have very little to do with their original lemonade and orange juice stands. They also skimp on quality and start adding all sorts of harmful and bad-tasting ingredients to their core products.
One day, they take a sip of their creations and are alarmed at how awful they – and their products – have become. They extricate themselves from the empires they had built. They form a new life together, focusing on what had always mattered in the first place. They fix what was wrong by going back to the basics.
The Internet is a lot like those beverage stands. Originally created in 1969 as the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANet, it enabled government agencies and academic researchers to communicate with each other about groundbreaking scientific research, to share results and collaborate without having to hop on a plane to do so. For this, it worked extremely well. It continued to grow, steadily adding more nodes and more users, and benefiting greatly from sponsorship by the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation. It became an indispensable research and collaboration tool and gradually added services such as Telnet, FTP, Gopher, and BBS to make it even easier to communicate over long distances.
Even with these advances and the rather closed and technically adept society they served, users still craved easier access to information. In 1990, Tim Berners-Lee, an English engineer and computer scientist working at CERN, created the World-Wide Web. Berners-Lee’s innovation was the hyperlink, a clickable text object that connected the user who clicked it to another information site. These hyperlinks could be embedded in documents and posted online. Users could then create pages that told a complete story by referencing each other. Once researchers at the University of Illinois added a graphical front-end and pictures to this system to create the first successful web browser, point-and-click access to the web’s information resources became accessible to everyone, and the Internet as we know it was born.
That Internet has grown and matured at a frenetic pace over the past twenty-five years, but it has never shaken its “wild west” reputation. Largely unregulated and open to all, the Internet still supports the same scientific community it did at its birth, but it is more popularly regarded as the backbone of modern business and entertainment. It supports commercial enterprises of all kinds, both legal and illegal. As much as it can inform and educate, it can misinform and mislead. It can inspire the next great innovation, but it can also just as easily spur the next violent revolution. We users of the Internet find it hard to discern legitimate news from misinformation campaigns, and we certainly struggle to get our own message heard through the din.
Cleaning up the Internet is an intractable problem, both because of scale and because of legitimate questions over whether it is anyone’s responsibility to do so. There is an aspect of the modern Internet that can be addressed, however, and Tim Berners-Lee and his startup company Inrupt are taking steps to do so. Building on his web infrastructure model called Solid, Berners-Lee aims to return control of personal data back to individuals.
We currently entrust our data to large Internet companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. They have become centralized storage cells for practically everyone’s online data, and they typically don’t give users easy ways to control who has access to that data or how it can be used. Berners-Lee envisions Solid as a central repository where users have complete control over their data and who else gets to see it and use it. Rather than have, for example, all of our GPS whereabouts or web site visits stored with one of the big tech giants and disseminated and used in ways we don’t know, it would be stored with Solid and shared with a tech giant only if we explicitly approve. The goal of Solid and the Inrupt start-up is to return control of personal data back to the person, a welcome correction to the current reality of having all of our data shared wantonly everywhere.
Berners-Lee’s vision will correct only one part of what is wrong with the Internet, but it is an important part. We won’t be able to return to the quaint days of puppy love and juice stands, but we’ll at least have more say over which one will serve us our sugar water on any given day.