Tim Berners-Lee is often credited as being the inventor of the World Wide Web — but these days he's hellbent on changing it.

The world renowned engineer and computer scientist has been working on a new project designed to fundamentally overhaul the internet and how it functions. He wants to pry power back from the tech juggernauts and give us more control over our personal data.

Companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Netflix dominate the web. These well known corporate giants enjoy an enormous amount of control not only over what people see and do online but over our private data and how it's used.

They know what we look at online, what we buy, who we talk to, who our friends are and just about anything else there is to be gleaned from the information we voluntarily (but often unwittingly) provide.


It's no secret Berners-Lee is not a fan of the way parts of the web have evolved in recent years. When the Trump administration signed a bill ensuring internet service providers could sell their customers' browsing history without permission last year, he called the move "disgusting" and "appalling".

To potentially help combat such practices he is working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a way to "re-decentralise the web" and give netizens more control over their personal data.

Called Solid — derived from the term "social linked data" — the project aims to "radically change the way web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy," the Solid website says.

The group behind the project is working to develop a set of tools and conventions to give internet users the freedom to choose where their data resides and who is allowed to access it by decoupling content from the application itself.

Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web with his original web server.Photo / News Corp Australia
Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web with his original web server.Photo / News Corp Australia

For example social networks would still run on the cloud but you could store your personal data on a local server which you control or you could choose a different cloud server run by a company or organisation you trust to house your data.

The idea is that the new standard would enable applications — like a hospital's record-keeping software or a social network — to read and write certain data from the servers you choose and control rather than the servers that belong to an individual company.

The era of surveillance capitalism

The push to create a more consumer friendly and privacy concerned internet comes as the public sentiment towards tech giants like Facebook and Google (which rely heavily in trafficking this data) has noticeably soured, particularly in the US.

Their role in the allowing Russia to meddle in the latest US presidential race has increased the spectre that regulators may crack down and break up the big tech giants under antitrust laws.

Just recently a number of former Facebook employees came out and criticised the impact the social media company has had on society with one former exec saying the company was "ripping apart the social fabric of how society works."

Everywhere you look, Silicon Valley elites seem to be struck by a bout of guilt-induced regret over the digital world they helped shape.

This week Steve Hilton, tech CEO and former adviser for ex British Prime Minister David Cameron — and whose wife is a senior executive at Facebook — wrote an opinion piece in which he decried the at times "pernicious" results of big tech's business model to capture our attention and suck up our data.

"With a phone in everyone's pocket, these companies can now literally track your every move. And the creepiness seems to get worse by the day," he wrote.

"Silicon Valley's surveillance capitalism has killed off human privacy. Did anyone ask them to do that? They say people want the convenience of data-enabled services — but for most people, there's no alternative."

Tim Berners-Lee is trying to help build that alternative.

While the current internet landscape has come to be dominated by a handful of powerful companies, he believes the wild west image that defined the early stages of the internet is what consumers ultimately want.

Speaking at the at the Decentralised Web Summit in San Francisco in 2016, he said the decentralised and free ethos that underpin the internet will prevail.

"You can make the walled garden very, very sweet," he said. "But the jungle outside is always more appealing in the long term."

And if all goes according to plan, the web inventor wants to be our jungle guide.