It’s been just over a year since Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, introduced the open source data protocol Solid during his keynote address at the virtual WeAreDevelopers World Congress. The New Stack recently learned about Solid’s progress, speaking with a programmer and a consultant Jackson Morganwho is an administrator with The Solid Team and an independent Solid developer for o.team.
Solid is a chance to fix much of what is wrong with online data by giving end users control over their personal information. It is an HTML protocol that uses a datastore or pods, which can be created and self-hosted — or at least possessed, if you use a third party for deployment — by the individual, who can grant or revoke access at will. It’s exactly the kind of digital identity solution we’ll need if we’re going to unlock what the former co-founder and CEO of Twitter, now founder and CEO of Block (formerly Square), Jack Dorsey described in his vision of Internet 5.0which called for autonomous digital IDs and decentralized web nodes.
“It conceptually resembles Solid. They could create their own thing of decentralized web nodes,” Morgan said of Dorsey’s plan. “But the problem is that it’s not necessarily a new concept.”
Strong calls for pods, which are both a standardized identity and a repository of personal data that anyone can access, but only an individual owns. From a developer’s perspective, all that coding to get data about your user? You can reduce it using Solid.
At a minimum, one use case would be to replace Gmail or Apple iTunes or one of the other proprietary app-based connection protocols with Solid’s open source protocol. A more robust use case would be a repository of, say, personal medical data owned and maintained by the individual end user, but accessed with permission from all systems – which frankly can’t happen enough early for those of us tired of asking doctors to fax (panting!) medical records to another physician prior to medical procedures.
A problem of awareness in the United States
Of course, those of us most concerned about this eventuality tend to be in the United States, where it’s highly decentralized, siled into apps and… dare i say it — archaic system of medical records. And just my luck, it turns out Solid’s adoption has been very slow in the US, Morgan said.
“Wouldn’t it be great if no matter where you were going in the world, you could just walk into a hospital or a clinic and say, ‘Here are my medical records,'” Morgan said. Well, yes, Morgan. It would totally be!
Apparently the US has an “awareness problem” when it comes to Solid.
“The tech culture in the United States is much less suspicious of companies looking to centralize their data because they can see a way to make money from it,” Morgan said. “European culture is very suspicious about this. So already, whether it’s in the public or private ecosystem, most people in the United States don’t even think that’s a problem, or at least most corporate administrators or government administrators in the United States- United are not.
Europe is driving strong adoption
Meanwhile, early adoption is happening, but mostly in Europe, where consumers and governments are more wary of big companies collecting personal data, Morgan said. Although to be fair, these large companies tend to be based in the United States and are therefore seen more as a foreign threat to European citizens. The General Data Protection Regulation is one of the ways in which Europe has tried to regulate the influence of American big tech. Solid, Morgan claims, is the technical answer to the GDPR question.
He compiled a list of the year’s wins for Solid, including working with:
The question for developers
Perhaps the question for the US shouldn’t be “why would we do that”, but why wouldn’t developers want to? Today, much of the data requested by applications is the same, and obtaining it is expensive and creates security risks. However, it is still an emerging protocol, with tools being developed that will make deployment easier and therefore perhaps more compelling to developers.
“As far as front-end developers and web developers go, at least I feel like if good tools are built, they can start building things,” Morgan said. “The concept of owning your own identity is not that hard to think about. So to get an idea, […] instead of storing things in someone else’s database, I keep my identity and my pod or my data on a database I control, or a cloud host I trust.
For frontend developers, this essentially removes backend issues. Instead of an on-premises database, they can think of it as a global, albeit decentralized, database connection, Morgan said.
“The basic concepts are relatively easy to learn,” he said. “It’s up to people like me, or maybe super-zealous frontend developers who want to do things like read specs, to create the tools that make it easy for everyone to use.”
But for now, the project seems to have a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. Solid will be used when there are users for it…which may not happen until end users need a pod to connect to apps that so far have been in short supply.