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Berners-Lee: Facebook 'threatens' web future

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Tim Berners-Lee has dubbed Facebook a threat to the universality of the world wide web.

Next month marks the twentieth anniversary of the first webpage – served up by Berners-Lee at the CERN particle physics lab in Geneva – and in the December issue of Scientific American, he celebrates the uniquely democratic nature of his creation, before warning against the forces that could eventually bring it down. "Several threats to the Web’s universality have arisen recently," he says.

He briefly warns of cable giants who may prevent the free flow of content across the net. "Cable television companies that sell internet connectivity are considering whether to limit their Internet users to downloading only the company’s mix of entertainment," he says. And then he sticks the boot into social networking sites, including Mark Zuckerberg's net behemoth. "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," Berners-Lee writes.

"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."

This echoes the complaint Google made earlier this month as it banned Facebook from tapping Gmail's Contacts API. Mountain Views won't allow netizens to export email addresses to Facebook unless it reciprocates. But Berners-Lee goes further.

"The isolation occurs because each piece of information does not have a URI," Berners-Lee continues, referring to universal resource identifier. "Connections among data exist only within a site. So 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.

"A related danger is that one social-networking site—or one search engine or one browser—gets so big that it becomes a monopoly, which tends to limit innovation." The threat here is not Friendster. It's Facebook, which now boasts over 500 million users worldwide.

Berners-Lee urges the adoption of more democratic services, including Facebook alternatives GnuSocial and Diaspora as well as the Status.net project, which gave rise to a decentralized incarnation of Twitter. "As has been the case since the Web began," he says, "continued grassroots innovation may be the best check and balance against any one company or government that tries to undermine universality."

Entitled "Love Live the Web," the Scientific American piece goes to promote the use of, yes, open standards. If you don't use open standards, Berners-Lee says, you create "closed worlds." Like Apple's iTunes. "Apple’s iTunes system," he says, "identifies songs and videos using URIs that are open. But instead of 'http:' the addresses begin with 'itunes:,' which is proprietary. You can access an 'itunes:' link only using Apple’s proprietary iTunes program.

"You can’t make a link to any information in the iTunes world—a song or information about a band. You can’t send that link to someone else to see. You are no longer on the Web. The iTunes world is centralized and walled off. 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."

He also bemoans the proliferation of net-connected apps on the Apple iPhone and other smartphones. "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."

Dredging up Comcast's BitTorrent busting, he then warns against threats to so-called net neutrality. This includes Google for the FCC filing it laid down this summer in tandem with US telco giant Verizon. "Unfortunately, in August, Google and Verizon for some reason suggested that net neutrality should not apply to mobile phone–based connections," he says.

"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. 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 WiFi-connected computer at home but not when I use my cell phone."

Eric Schmidt now says that Google's proposal omitted wireless simply because this makes it easier to reach a compromise with the likes of Verizon on wireless lines. Wireless net neutrality, he indicates, will come later. But Berners-Lee is right to be, shall we say, skeptical.

He also warns against Phorm-style snooping and governments that restrict free speech on the web. But ultimately, he's optimistic. "Now is an exciting time," he says. "Web developers, companies, governments and citizens should work together openly and cooperatively, as we have done thus far, to preserve the Web’s fundamental principles, as well as those of the Internet, ensuring that the technological protocols and social conventions we set up respect basic human values. The goal of the Web is to serve humanity. We build it now so that those who come to it later will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine." ®

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