Inventor of web criticizes Facebook and cable ISPs

tim-berners-lee-inventor-of-the-webThe inventor of the world wide web has commented on many of the biggest problems facing the web today. In an encompassing Scientific American editorial, Tim Berners-Lee, laid out a “call for continued open standards and neutrality,” and was not shy in his ridicule of Internet service providers, specific social networking sites, and governments who seek to tear the web from its open origins. The key to the continued success of the web will be universality, decentralization, open standards, and electronic human rights, he says. Below are some select quotes from his article.

Social Networking

“Social-networking sites present a different kind of problem,” writes Berners-Lee. “Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster and others typically provide value by capturing information as you enter it: your birthday, your e-mail address, your likes, and links indicating who is friends with whom and who is in which photograph. The sites assemble these bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service—but only within their sites. Once you enter your data into one of these services, you cannot easily use them on another site. Each site is a silo, walled off from the others. Yes, your site’s pages are on the Web, but your data are not. You can access a Web page about a list of people you have created in one site, but you cannot send that list, or items from it, to another site.”

His comments echo the reasons Google gave for closing off its Gmail contacts to Facebook a couple weeks ago. He goes on to point out the danger of a single social networking site (like Facebook) becoming too dominant. A monopoly tends to stifle innovation and could undermine universality if that site is not open with its data.


Berners-Lee points out the dangers in allowing ISPs and governments to peak at what data is sent across their networks.

“Accessing the information within an Internet packet is equivalent to wiretapping a phone or opening postal mail,” he writes. “The URIs that people use reveal a good deal about them. A company that bought URI profiles of job applicants could use them to discriminate in hiring people with certain political views, for example. Life insurance companies could discriminate against people who have looked up cardiac symptoms on the Web. Predators could use the profiles to stalk individuals. We would all use the Web very differently if we knew that our clicks can be monitored and the data shared with third parties.”

The problem with Apps

Berners-Lee explains the problem with a closed system like iTunes poses to the open web, pointing out that there is no way to link to a store item from the web unless Apple decides you can. Amazon, he says, is an example of a more open store. From there, he moves toward apps, and right into a story we covered yesterday.

“Other companies are also creating closed worlds,” he writes. “The tendency for magazines, for example, to produce smartphone “apps” rather than Web apps is disturbing, because that material is off the Web. You can’t bookmark it or e-mail a link to a page within it. You can’t tweet it. It is better to build a Web app that will also run on smartphone browsers, and the techniques for doing so are getting better all the time.”

“Some people may think that closed worlds are just fine. The worlds are easy to use and may seem to give those people what they want. But as we saw in the 1990s with the America Online dial-up information system that gave you a restricted subset of the Web, these closed, “walled gardens,” no matter how pleasing, can never compete in diversity, richness and innovation with the mad, throbbing Web market outside their gates. If a walled garden has too tight a hold on a market, however, it can delay that outside growth.”

The article is a fantastic read and highly educational. For those looking to understand more about net neutrality and many of the issues commonly discussed on this site, we recommend you give it a read.