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Tim Berners-Lee's Solid explained: What you need to know

Data ownership, independence and portability return to users with Solid's premise, but the platform needs third-party business and developer support to survive, then thrive.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are free services. To make money, these businesses monetize user data. But who owns the content generated on Facebook -- the user or Facebook? This contentious issue spurred the European Union to develop the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the strictest privacy and security law in the world. It was then approved in 2016 and went into effect in May 2018. In the United States, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which used the GDPR as a guide, was signed into law in June 2018 and went into effect in 2020.

While threatened legal action proved effective initially in ensuring CCPA compliance across a range of California businesses, data ownership and security aren't the sole concerns for users -- not in the United States or anywhere else. Many users have multiple PCs, smartphones, tablets, and cloud storage and social media accounts, scattering and complicating data storage.

In response to these burgeoning legal, technological and social issues, Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web in the late 1980s and current professor at MIT, offered a business solution to address the problem -- one that's user-friendly. It's Solid.

What is the Solid project?

Solid, or social linked data, is a project Berners-Lee designed to decentralize the web and put data ownership back in the hands of its creators, rather than the powerful tech companies that currently host or house it.

An English-born physicist working for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, Berners-Lee created the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, HTTP, for the then-nascent internet more than 30 years ago, specifically for researchers sharing data. He also developed the Hypertext Markup Language, HTML, as well as the world's first web browser and first web server.

Berners-Lee, deeply concerned with the mismanagement of user data and its ripple effects, originally developed Solid in collaboration with MIT. However, in 2018, he set up a private company called Inrupt to lead the project.

Solid has no connection to blockchain, an earlier, more well-known effort to decentralize the web. Berners-Lee has two objections to blockchain: First, its records are public, increasing the risk of compromised data; and second, blockchain services, infrastructure and transactions can be expensive.

How does Solid work?

The Solid network is built on a peer-to-peer design rather than a centralized hub-and-spoke infrastructure. It puts a user's data in Pods, which can be stored anywhere -- PC, mobile device, server or cloud. Users are allowed multiple Pods. Solid protocols are based on existing World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) recommendations for reading, writing and access control of the contents in a user's Pod. There are several larger-scale open source servers available to individuals or companies, and Inrupt offers its own Solid server.

Users manage data in their Pod with fine-grained access controls, granting or revoking access as needed. Because applications are decoupled from the data source, they can aggregate data from multiple Pods. In addition, data is managed independently of applications that access the data. This makes a Pod similar to a generic text file, rather than a database file only accessible by that database.

Any application can access a Pod provided that it uses W3C authentication and access standards. The apps communicate via a universal API that handles back-end data and controls access. Solid uses a global ID space and global single sign-on, both W3C standards, plus the WebID identifier and protocol that Berners-Lee invented.

The Solid client platform is built around Solid.js, a JavaScript library that's small and light, but meant to accelerate the development of Solid applications because less code is required.

Solid foothold for the future

Berners-Lee, who released Solid in 2016 and launched Inrupt in 2018, recognizes that the platform is in its early stages and its developer community is small. The challenge for Berners-Lee is to attract and develop an ecosystem of developers and hosts.

Supporters hope that third parties will establish and find a way to monetize Solid servers to host data, just as email companies and cloud storage companies do. At the same time, Solid must gain and grow the trust of its relatively few users, especially those who share medical or financial data -- highly personal information -- requiring secure storage from established, trusted companies.

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