Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee is on a hiring spree

Inrupt, the disruptive internet start-up founded by Tom Berners-Lee, has announced it is expanding its operational team as it pursues the redistribution of power in the internet era.

After inventing the world wide web in 1991, Berners-Lee (pictured) has been on somewhat of a crusade in recent years, heavily criticising the corporate nature of an invention which was intended to empower society. Inrupt is Berners-Lee’s answer to the unsatisfactory position.

“I’ve always believed the web is for everyone,” Berners-Lee said when launching the business. “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.”

With the creation of an open-source project known as Solid, the Inrupt team hope to give the user a choice about where data is stored, who can access this information and what applications are used. The objective is to give the user the defining voice in how data is used, and in turn, eroding the power and influence of the corporations who have benefitted so greatly from the rise of the internet.

With Inrupt providing commercial energy and an ecosystem to help develop Solid, Berners-Lee has now announced a string of new hires to help drive the company forward.

Bruce Schneier has joined as Chief of Security Architecture, while Davi Ottenheimer has been appointed as VP of Trust and Digital Ethics. Osmar Olivo and Emmet Townsend will act as the VP’s of Product and Engineering respectively, adding a significant amount of weight to the operational team.

“Joining Inrupt is one of those rare opportunities to build something that will change the everyday lives of billions of people,” said Olivo. “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.”

While the objectives of Inrupt might be considered aggressive by some in the industry, there is certainly some interest in the work. Glasswing Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm based in Massachusetts, has invested in Inrupt, while the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is working alongside Inrupt to create an ‘Early Years’ app that digitises the paper-based assessments currently used to review a child’s development up to the age of 2.5 years.

Inrupt certainly has the cash and the PR potential to make a dent in the technology status quo, and now it seems to have the muscle with these new employees. The issue which remains is whether this project can make the transition from an academic dream through to a commercial reality.

This is where critics have focused their attention to date. Berners-Lee’s criticism of the status quo is of course very timely, GDPR and California’s privacy laws pay homage to the same issues, but the question is whether an idea which could be viewed as revolutionary gains traction in the real world. Universities are full of blue-sky thinking innovators who have an idea which can change the course of history, but the truth is few are designed to accommodate the nuances of reality. Only time will tell to which column Inrupt falls into.

As FCC prepares to kill net neutrality, Berners-Lee rallies the resistance

The US telecoms regulator is set to detail plans to reverse its 2015 net neutrality ruling, but the inventor of the World Wide Web is mobilising opposition.

Earlier this year FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his predecessor had been wrong to impose what he considered to be excessive regulations on US ISPs which, among other things, prevented them from selectively restricting internet traffic. He vowed to reverse that ruling before the end of the year and Reuters reports that the moment of truth is almost upon us.

We don’t bang on about net neutrality over here nearly so much, mainly because it’s already set in UK and European law, but also because our ISP market is considered to be more competitive. In many parts of the US there is less choice between broadband providers and so the fear is that ISPs will face fewer disincentives to exploit any freedom they have to favour internet traffic for commercial reasons.

The Pai-led FCC seems to be coming at this matter more from a laissez-faire economic/small state political direction rather than any specific dislike of net neutrality but the likely result is the same. People who favour light-touch regulation think it’s not the state’s job to tell private companies what to do with their property, while many neutrals think the internet is too important to be left unprotected from such corporate avarice.

One of the figureheads of the latter camp is Tim Berners-Lee, who has been dining out on inventing the World Wide Web for almost 30 years. Writing in USA Today, for some reason, Berners-Lee said “Treating all content equally online is key to individual empowerment, democracy and economic growth. But the FCC is threatening to take that away.”

He goes on to say that he gave his invention away for free because he realised how important is could be for global communication, the dissemination of information and the empowerment of individuals. There’s no doubting he was correct on all counts there, and everyone with an internet connection now has access to knowledge, services and entertainment that we could only have dreamed about only a generation or two ago.

But the removal of net neutrality isn’t the only threat Berners-Lee perceives to his internet utopia. The Guardian reports him lamenting the influence of the big internet advertising companies – i.e. Google and Facebook – and by forces that look to exploit that influence. “The system is failing,” he said. “The way ad revenue works with clickbait is not fulfilling the goal of helping humanity promote truth and democracy. So I am concerned.”

There are valid arguments on both sides of this debate. Why should private companies have commercial opportunities arbitrarily taken away from them by the state, especially when plenty of other bad stuff on the internet goes unchecked? On the other hand the internet is probably the most important resource of our era and so should subject to measures designed to protect the greater good. Expect plenty more noise from both sides once Pai formally makes his move.