Founder of world wide web says some of the most successful social networking sites ‘have begun to chip away at its principles’
Inventor of the world wide web Tim Berners-Lee has accused Facebook of creating a ‘closed silo of content’. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/GettyFacebook, LinkedIn and other social networking sites represent “one of several threats” to the future of the world wide web, its founder, Sir Tim Berners-Lee has warned.
Some of the web’s “most successful inhabitants”, such as Facebook and large telecoms companies, have begun to “chip away” at its founding principles, Berners-Lee wrote in a Scientific American journal essay published today
Social networking sites that do not allow users to extract the information they put into them is a “problem” that could mean the web is “broken into fragmented islands”, he said.
Google accused Facebook earlier this month of leaving its 600 million users in a “data dead end” with their contact details and personal information “effectively trapped”.
Although Facebook recently began allowing users to download profile information including status updates and photos, the world’s most popular social network has been roundly criticised for leaving users’ network of contacts “walled” inside its own site.Berners-Lee warned that such a “closed silo of content” risked leaving the web “fragmented”.
“The web evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles,” he said. “The web as we know it, however, is being threatened in different ways. Some of its most successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles.”
He added: “The more you enter, the more you become locked in. Your social networking site becomes a central platform – a closed silo of content, and one that does not give you full control over your information in it.
“The more this kind of architecture gains widespread use, the more the web becomes fragmented, and the less we enjoy a single, universal information space.”
Berners-Lee also said there was a worry that a social networking site could become “so big that it becomes a monopoly, which tends to limit innovation”.
Facebook registered its 500 millionth user in July, having signed up 250 million new users in the preceding 12 months. October figures from online metrics firm comScore suggest Facebook now has 620 million users around the world, with more than 33 million in the UK.
Berners-Lee also criticised companies that opt to build mobile or desktop applications, such as Apple’s iTunes or smartphone apps, rather than create apps that sit on the web alongside other websites. “Open standards drive innovation,” he said, adding that the tendency for publishers to create apps for smartphones such as the iPhone is “disturbing”.
“The iTunes world is centralised and walled off,” he added. “You are trapped in a single store, rather than being on the open marketplace. For all the store’s wonderful features, its evolution is limited to what one company thinks up.
“Other companies are also creating closed worlds. The tendency for magazines, for example, to produce smartphone ‘apps’ rather than web apps is disturbing, because that material is off the web.”
The web’s inventor also reiterated his support of net neutrality, following communications minister Ed Vaizey’s speech last week. Vaizey appeared to give the green light for internet service providers (ISPs) such as BT, TalkTalk and Virgin Media to begin charging content companies such as the BBC for preferential treatment in their delivery to customers.
However, Vaizey has since said he is in favour of net neutrality, adding that his speech was misinterpreted.
Berners-Lee criticised Google and US telecom company Verizon for its conceptual agreement forged in August that appeared to exempt mobile access to the internet from the net neutrality principles, which recommend that there should be no favouritism for connecting to certain sites.
“Many people in rural areas from Utah to Uganda have access to the internet only via mobile phones; exempting wireless from net neutrality would leave these users open to discrimination of service,” Berners-Lee said.
“It is also bizarre to imagine that my fundamental right to access the information source of my choice should apply when I am on my Wi-Fi connected computer at home but not when I use my cellphone.”