Tim Berners-Lee expands Inrupt team to ‘restore power’ on the web

24 Feb 2020

Image: © tippapatt/Stock.adobe.com

Inrupt was set up to develop a web platform entitled Solid – an open-source project aimed at restoring power and agency to individuals using the web.

Inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, launched a start-up in 2017 with the goal of redesigning the web as we know it.

The start-up, Inrupt, was co-founded by Berners-Lee and John Bruce to counteract how the web has evolved into “an engine of inequity; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas”.

In 2018, Berners-Lee wrote: “I believe we’re at a critical tipping point and that powerful change for the better is possible – and necessary. This is why I have, over recent years been working with a few people at MIT and elsewhere to develop Solid, an open-source project to restore the power and agency of individuals on the web.”

On Friday (21 February), Inrupt announced that it has expanded its operational team to develop the Solid platform into a “massively scalable, production-quality technology platform”. Already, the company is working with local authorities in Manchester to pilot an app that will digitise children’s healthcare records, up to the age of two and a half.

What is Solid?

Berners-Lee said that Solid aims to change the existing web model, where users have to hand over personal data to “digital giants in exchange for perceived value”, as historically, “this hasn’t been in our best interests.”

With Solid, Berners-Lee and Bruce want to restore balance by giving users complete control over data in a “revolutionary way”. Built using the existing web, the platform gives every user a choice about where their data is stored, and which groups and people can access elements of this data.

Berners-Lee wrote: “Solid unleashes incredible opportunities for creativity, problem-solving and commerce. It will empower individuals, developers and businesses with entirely new ways to conceive, build and find innovative, trusted and beneficial applications and services. I see multiple market possibilities, including Solid apps and Solid data storage.”

Last year, Inrupt raised more than $10m in investment from tech companies, individuals and institutions interested in the development of Solid, though the Financial Times suggested that some big tech companies have dismissed Solid as a “quixotic academic project that is unlikely ever to succeed because users are so path dependent on existing data platforms”.

Security and ethics

The team behind Inrupt has continued its work despite this criticism, with Bruce recently writing that pilot projects are making their way into the public domain. The co-founder revealed that Inrupt has spent the last year recruiting its team from backgrounds in start-ups, science, academia, government, journalism, enterprise technology and open-source software.

Bruce announced that IoT and 5G expert Bruce Schneier will be stepping into the role of chief of security architecture, to “assure the fundamental safety of Solid’s architecture and steer the roadmap” of the company in years to come.

Schneier commented: “We are stretching authentication and web security protocols in ways that have never been done before and using them in ways that haven’t been considered yet. This isn’t just people authentication, but machine authentication.”

Meanwhile, Davi Ottenheimer was named as vice-president of trust and digital ethics. Ottenheimer has spent 25 years working in security and trust for global organisations and will help the company to “implement real-world decentralisation standards with ethics at their core”.

Ottenheimer said: “Inrupt is at the forefront of adapting and applying security models that directly preserve human rights and freedoms, helping to ensure we can achieve a truly trusted and respected web.”

Product and engineering

The company also announced that Osmar Olivo will be Inrupt’s vice-president of product. Olivo has spent his career in product management for enterprise and in open source.

Olivo said: “Joining Inrupt is one of those rare opportunities to build something that will change the everyday lives of billions of people. The world is changing and existing technologies aren’t designed to solve these kinds of problems. Everyone else is retrofitting for a safer world. Inrupt is building one.”

The company’s new vice-president of engineering is Emmet Townsend, who has 25 years of experience in building and delivering large-scale production-quality software for organisations to meet the expectations of governments, large enterprises and tens of millions of users.

Townsend said: “The web is already woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. By enabling people to control the use of their data, and enabling innovative and interoperable apps, we will enrich that fabric, creating experiences beyond anything seen to date.”

Finally, Inrupt announced that the technical architect behind Solid will be Sarven Capadisli, who has been involved in the evolution of the product alongside Berners-Lee at MIT since 2015.

Bruce said: “[Capadisli] remains involved in advancing linked research communication on the web. His knowledge is vital to further developing Solid’s technical specifications and to ensure open consensus within a common ethical framework.”

Capadisli added that the team has “only scratched the surface of what the web can do as an agent of change” and Inrupt plans to “show other companies how they can step in and change the power dynamic and positively affect society”.

Bruce concluded: “With these exceptional individuals on board, we’re one giant step closer to the web we want.”

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic