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Digital activists are fighting to reclaim the web

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee at Open Data Awards 2015. Photo: Open Data Institute Knowledge for Everyone/Flickr

Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web back in 1989, when he was working for CERN, "the European Organization for Nuclear Research [where] physicists and engineers are probing the fundamental structure of the universe." At his urging, CERN put the technology into the public domain, rather than trying to monetize it.

"On 30 April 1993 CERN put the World Wide Web software in the public domain. CERN made the next release available with an open licence, as a more sure way to maximize its dissemination. Through these actions (making the software required to run a web server freely available, along with a basic browser and a library of code) the web was allowed to flourish."

"I've always believed the web is for everyone," Berners-Lee wrote on his Inrupt blog. "That's why I and others fight fiercely to protect it. The changes we've managed to bring have created a better and more connected world. But for all the good we've achieved, the web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas." Yes, he's talking about Facebook and Amazon, and also Adclick and Doubleclick and all the other advertising trackers that lift personal information and slow down the web.

Last summer, Berners-Lee took part in the Decentralized Web Summit, which drew 800 web builders and others to San Francisco to discuss ways to reclaim the People's Web. As The Guardian reported, "The proponents of the so-called decentralized web -- or DWeb -- want a new, better web where the entire planet's population can communicate without having to rely on big companies that amass our data for profit and make it easier for governments to conduct surveillance...."

Behind all the activity lie some driving concerns, says the article:

"With the current web, all that user data concentrated in the hands of a few creates risk that our data will be hacked. It also makes it easier for governments to conduct surveillance and impose censorship. And if any of these centralized entities shuts down, your data and connections are lost. Then there are privacy concerns stemming from the business models of many of the companies, which use the private information we provide freely to target us with ads...."

The "Brave" browser is another effort to reclaim privacy online -- a new browser with a built-in adblocker. Brave is built on Chrome's open source code and the updated version includes Tor. (There's also a Tor browser, based on Mozilla Firefox.) Brave is still experimenting with ways to compensate creators through either upvoting or distributing ad revenue.

For privacy, "Tor uses technology called onion routing," reports CNET, "that separates your computer from the website it's communicating with by sending network traffic through three intermediate servers. That keeps websites from logging anything about you, including your computer's internet address."

Berners-Lee's new platform, Solid, involves using a Universal Resource Identifier (URI), for person-to-person connections, similar to the Universal Resource Locator, or URL, he invented back in the day. Solid would be incorporated into an Internet Service Provider's or private web server's software, rather than the user's software.

Also, every user has a Solid POD. "PODs are like secure USB sticks for the web, that you can access from anywhere. When you give others access to parts of your POD, they can react to your photos and share their memories with you. You decide which things apps and people can see.

Whatever the remedy proves to be, Tim Berners-Lee says now is the time for digital activists to reclaim the web. "Today, I believe we've reached a critical tipping point," he said, "and that powerful change for the better is possible -- and necessary."

At the same time, he added, "I'm incredibly optimistic for this next era of the web. The future is still so much bigger than the past."

Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column for four years. She was Editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004 - 2013.

Photo: Open Data Institute Knowledge for Everyone/Flickr

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