Note: also available on arthurfontaine.com
Great news, everyone! The web is about to get a major upgrade. Brought to you by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the original, it introduces a handful of targeted tweaks that completely refactor the web, fixing most of the stuff we hate today, while making everything else just work better going forward.
The central insight driving the next web is that today we suffer from a power problem. Specifically:
- Whoever holds the data holds the power
- You never hold the data so you never hold the power
The next web addresses this root problem by giving you control over your data, and tools to make it useful to you. Turns out it’s pretty easy to fix today’s power misalignment and put you in charge.
This post will introduce the general concepts behind the next web and help you understand why it’s so transformative. Part 2 tells the story of how the next web transforms our relationship with Big Tech.
What is the Next Web?
The best way to think of the next web is as the next release of the original World Wide Web from 1989. And the one person on the planet who’s done this before is doing it again.
Berners-Lee’s Solid project, as it is known, is a set of open standards just like the original web — which means it’s built on words, not technology. The proven power of this approach is that anyone who supports the specifications can innovate, without royalty, as far as their imagination takes them.
Like all proper upgrades, the new release is fully backward-compatible and builds upon the web’s existing infrastructure, while delivering major new features and options.
The next web operates in a way that today’s users will find very familiar, yet far more intuitive and natural, because it eliminates most of the complexity we face today. Participation is fully opt-in, but like the original web, the next web’s value grows as more people discover and adopt it. Importantly, nothing that works today stops working on the next web; you just get better options when an app or service supports the new model.
So what are the major differences on the next web? There are three of them:
- Identity — Today you have a different login/password pair for every service you use. The next web provides a single, consolidated identity that you legally own and administratively control, and that works everywhere, seamlessly and securely. Existing apps can easily add support, and new ones can accept it from the start. This identity also manages all your contacts and relationships for you— your social graph.
- Data storage — Today you spray data across many apps and services, where it is functionally out of your control and programmatically isolated from all your other data. The next web consolidates it all in a “pod,” a private, secure cloud repository that acts as your personal home in the digital world. It’s the default destination for everything you create going forward, and incorporates all the data you’ve created in the past. Viewing, managing, and sharing content becomes a much simpler process because everything’s centered around you, not the apps and services you use.
- Interoperability — The primary architectural flaw on today’s web is that every site is an island, completely isolated from every other one. Your data and identity are split up. The next web uses semantic programming principles to turn the entire web into one big application space, so any data can be accessed (with your permission) by any app or service. This breaks the lock between your data and the applications that use it, enabling whole new classes of solutions.
Together, these three relatively simple modifications serve to radically change the web, all in your favor. Architecturally it introduces decentralization, or the transfer of control from centralized systems outward to users. In practical terms, it frees you to use any app or service you want, at any time, granting, modifying, or revoking access to your data as you like. Vendors must continuously compete for your patronage, or they can lose you in an instant. Like in the real world.
Sounds cool? It is. Let’s dig a little deeper.
If you’re like most people, today you have dozens or even hundreds of separate identities on the web, each with its own password. Each “account” is merely a duplicate of your basic identity, scoped to a single app or service and useless anywhere else. Those copies aren’t identical. Each has varying amounts of information; for example many identities require only an email and password, but for others you provide detailed information, as when you store a shipping address or credit card. Invariably there are errors and outdated information among your accounts. Accounts also tend to become forgotten, or disappear altogether when entities cease to exist. What happens to that identity data? You generally have no idea.
The next web uses a technology called a decentralized identifier, or DID (pronounced dee-eye-dee), sometimes called self-sovereign identity. Your DID is a “single source of truth” that you own and control, and people and entities use it to verify you, to conduct secure communications with you, and to access your current personal information. You can put lots of information in your DID but always retain complete control over who can access what, and under which circumstances.
Like your data pod, your DID is professionally hosted for you, but you retain absolute legal ownership and total administrative control. It can be the same service that hosts your pod but it doesn’t have to be. Like your pod you can move to another provider at any time.
It also makes for a much more intuitive identity process. You log into your identity and all your relationships and connections just work. The first time you interact with a person or organization, you’re given a prompt to accept the cryptographic credentials of the other party. After that, as long as the credentials aren’t modified, revoked, or expired, the DIDs will create a secure connection that’s seamless to you.
As your connections accumulate, they’re organized as an address book, which also serves as a social graph of your connections. DIDs map and consolidate usernames for you and your contacts across various services, so you can see all interactions with any party in a single unified view.
The central insight to the next web is that, to have any power, you need to control your personal data. The root problem is that today we simply give it away.
On the next web you have your own private, secure “personal online datastore,” or pod, that provides you with a dedicated space on the internet from which you can interact with the rest of the digital world, on your own terms. Your pod becomes the default destination and lens for all of your data. Your pod essentially re-centers the web around you, and puts you in complete control.
One critical advantage of the next web is that, through interoperability (next section), it includes your past data as well as what you create going forward. On the next web you don’t sacrifice your data when you exercise choice.
There are three broad types of data in a pod, each treated somewhat differently.
The first is true personal data, the things you typically associate with your Apple or Google account: email/calendar, files, chats and texts, along with generated data like call, location, and browsing histories. This is the class of data that will start flowing into your pod once you start using the next web, and you can import the stuff you created in the past for a combined, uninterrupted view. Sharing and managing content becomes much more intuitive because everything is in one place; you no longer have to remember where you connect with whom, and what’s been shared there in the past.
The second data type is social data, for large-scale services that aggregate content from many users, and share it back to the user population according to algorithms and preferences. In this case your posts and likes and shares take place in your pod and constitute the authoritative copy, and are then federated out to compatible social apps. You can make changes on any service and they’ll all get updated, so you can use whichever one you want or even switch back and forth seamlessly. (We go deeper into this in Part 2.)
The third data type is all the data you have today in various commercial, community, and government accounts including shopping, utilities, clubs, banks, tax authorities, vehicle registries, etc. This data could be imported into your pod too, but in most cases you can simply leave it where it is. With support for next web standards, this data appears the same as any other pod data to you, and can be utilized with apps designed to take advantage of it. For example, all of your web subscriptions could be aggregated and managed within a standardized user interface, instead of scattered and managed in dissimilar interfaces as we suffer today.
Since the dawn of network computing, the basic operating model is that when an application or service entices/empowers you to use it to do something, the entity running the back end retains any data you create or generate, effectively taking control of it and (as first-generation web innovators quickly discovered) getting to harvest all its value. Because it has always been so, no one has really thought to question it.
But that data belongs to you. That’s true both conceptually and literally, if you reside in one of the rapidly growing number of jurisdictions with a modern privacy law like the European Union’s GDPR. Even if you’re not covered today, those laws have forced major apps and services to engineer the capability for users to view and manage their data, so any regulator or legislative body can make them turn it on for you.
On the next web, semantic coding (another Berners-Lee innovation) delivers a “common framework that allows data to be shared and reused across application, enterprise, and community boundaries.” This creates interoperability through standards, effectively turning the entire web into one big, universal application. No matter where your data resides, you control who can see it, and what can be done with it.
Semantic web data describes itself, what it is and what it can do, so applications can use it no matter what type of data it is, or what source generated it.
But it can also be extremely domain-specific through the use of open-sourced shapes and vocabularies that are unique to a particular industry or activity. A shape incorporates domain context, for example a social network. A vocabulary defines the data types that social networks use. Any social network application just works, since they’re all using the same data.
In fact, millions of sites and applications already use semantic web programming within their “walled garden” environments, because it’s an efficient and flexible way to code. What they haven’t done is activate the semantic web’s greatest property: universality. With identity and data standardized, all these services need to do is add next web support and they’ll instantly integrate with the new model.
Summing it Up
The next web addresses the root flaw that ruined today’s web. By restoring the power of the data to its true owner — you — the next web fixes most of the problems we suffer today, while making everything work better from here on out.
It’s that simple.
The transformative part — and that word gets misused and abused I know — is the powerful platform it creates for people to once again innovate around, just as the original World Wide Web triggered one of history’s most important technological evolutions and created historic fortunes. It will be exciting to see what people come up with this time, but you can be sure it won’t produce the power imbalances and lock-in we suffer today, because people won’t have to accept that anymore.
Of course, the most common objection I hear is that the entities that have all the power today would hate this and never allow it to happen. The reality is, they can object to it but they can’t escape it. Once we demand it they will embrace it, or lose us to competitors who will.
Congratulations! You now understand the core concepts and dynamics of the next web. Read Part 2 to see how it massively improves your relationships with Big Tech.