Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid approach to rescuing the web from algorithms

Martin Cowen

Contributing Editor

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Martin Cowen is a contributing editor to the Amadeus Blog. He is a freelance writer, editor and moderator with a global perspective on B2B travel technology and B2C trends. This is the first in a series of posts highlighting his takeaways from our T3CH event. He will also be discussing other travel tech related topics in the coming months.

If you’re looking for a keynote speaker to open the first ever technology conference for the travel industry (T3CH), the inventor of the web is as good as it is possible to get.

It happened in Madrid last week when Sir Tim Berners-Lee explained how the web has changed for the worse since 1989 - no great surprise there - but his forensic analysis of what has driven the changes, the danger they represent and how to mitigate the risks for future internet users was an eye-opener for the audience.

“For 20 years I was excited and happy, but now there are issues,” he told attendees at T3CH. And over the next 45 minutes he homed in on these issues, with the rise of the algorithm and the misuse of individuals’ data as the drivers of a worldwide web which he described as having become “dystopian”.

The web in its original form was all about “humanity becoming collaborative”. He reminded the audience that an internet had existed for 20 years before the web emerged in 1989. The original web was built to allow the physicists working at CERN in Switzerland to share documents with peers around the globe.

“The model of web use was each of us having our own presence on the web via blogs. We would make the blogs as good as possible and the rewards were in the form of links, and the blogosphere spread the good links.”

However, the blogosphere has become social media, with individuals posting content onto “a small number of social networks” rather than having their own independent presence. At this point the web started to change. The good links of the blogosphere were replaced by algorithms, dictated by the advertising strategy of the networks.

“What people read on social networks is not curated, it is determined by algorithms,” he said. “The result is that some people end up manipulating others to believe things they wouldn’t normally do so.”

He mentioned how a small town in Macedonia had become, what Wired described as, “the fake news factory of the world” during the 2016 US election. Teenagers learnt that they could earn tens of thousands of dollars by creating web sites, inventing and sharing pro-Trump fake news and watching the Google Ad Sense dollars roll in.

“The idea of an ad-based business model was great, but ad-based systems inevitably go wrong,” he said. Elsewhere in his speech, he also railed against the huge amount of money made from speculating about domain sales, saying this aspect of the web should have been “better managed for the public good.”

The Cambridge Analytica case also got a mention and was framed around the misuse of data for commercial and political means. Cambridge Analytica has been the catalyst for a rethink around data sharing, data privacy and data access issues.

This is where travel comes in. Data privacy and protection is the elephant in the room when it comes to many of the travel industry initiatives around personalization, knowing the customer, targeted offers, and more. Clearly the issue is more than just being compliant with regulations, with Berners Lee reconfirming the travel industry’s familiar refrain – people are okay sharing data if they feel they are in control of how it is used, they trust the company holding the data and they get some value out of sharing it.

In this context, he introduced T3CH to Solid, a project he is leading at MIT and which, according to the website, “aims to radically change the way web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy.”

Solid is a data management platform based around PODS – personal online data stores. Users have their own pod, which they can use to store their data, from passport details to previous trips to food preferences. Pods can link to the web or to other pods. Users would then have control over which third parties are allowed to access the data, with Solid vetting and regulating the third-parties on the user’s behalf. Users could have different pods for, say, their business travel data or their family vacation data.

This sounds like the “super PNR” idea often bandied around at conferences and resonates with digital identity verification initiatives such as IATA’s ONE ID, while also tapping into the wider enterprise tech trend of privacy as a service.

He calls this re-decentralization. He also sees the commercial possibilities of Solid, and last September he launched a start-up called Inrupt which aims to bring Solid to market.

Berners-Lee went so far as to suggest that users would be willing to pay for an app which generates the ideal trip based on the data stored within the pods. The idea of a subscription service to take the web forward is compelling in a time when the subscription model is being used across a number of verticals.

Berners-Lee would like Solid to be part of the web’s future, and for this to be in the hands of the current users. He is a founding director of the Web Foundation, which launched in 2009 “to advance the open web as a public good and a basic right”. He told T3CH attendees that “the 50% of us who are currently connected have a responsibility to make sure that the other 50% can get access”. He talked about affordability of access, and the contract for the web, a blueprint for how governments, companies and citizens should behave in order to secure a positive future for the web.

The web has inspired billions of people to search and book travel, and contributed to efficiency and profitability for travel companies, creating tens of millions of jobs in the process.

The future of the travel industry is inextricably linked with the future of the web. After hearing from Sir Tim Berners-Lee on how the web has changed over the years, attendees at T3CH were left to ponder the lessons learned and think about how best to transform tomorrow’s travel.