Tim Berners-Lee criticises Web leaders

Web inventor blames Apple, Facebook, Verizon and Google among companies promoting harmful online practices

Tim Berners-Lee, credited with creating the Web, has warned that social-networking sites, efforts to prioritize Web traffic and closed systems such as iTunes threaten the Web's capability to promote free speech and open doors to new scientific discoveries, in an essay published in Scientific American.

The essay criticizes an array of companies including Apple, Facebook, Verizon, Google, and generally, ISPs (Internet service providers), for actions that he says could significantly hamper the potential of the Web.

"If we, the Web's users, allow these and other trends to proceed unchecked, the Web could be broken into fragmented islands. We could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want," he wrote.

He says social-networking sites including Facebook, LinkedIn and Friendster threaten the Web's universality. Such sites assemble data such as users' birthdays, e-mail addresses and likes into databases, reusing the information to provide value-added services. The hitch is that such services are available only within their sites, he said.

"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," he notes.

"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," he said.

Google recently also criticized Facebook for similar reasons. In early November, Google said it would no longer allow other sites to import data from Google services such as Gmail unless the site also allowed Google access to similar data. Notably, Facebook has never allowed Google to access its user contact information, although Facebook users can import Gmail contact data.

Facebook managed to work around Google's change, and in response, Google now warns users that if they export their data to Facebook, they won't be able to get it out.

Such closed worlds are also created when companies such as Apple decide not to use open standards. Berners-Lee gives the example of iTunes, where he says that although songs and videos use open URLs, their addresses begin with the proprietary "itunes:" rather than the open "http." That means users can't make a link to information in iTunes and send it to someone else. "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," Berners-Lee wrote.

The trend toward building smartphone apps, rather than Web apps, leads to similar problems, he said. Material in native apps is "off the Web," meaning that users can't bookmark it or link to it.

Such trends lead to similar scenarios as the walled gardens that were popular in the 1990s, such as AOL, that ultimately proved unsatisfying to users, he said. Those environments, even if they are easy to use, "can never compete in diversity, richness and innovation with the mad, throbbing Web market outside their gates," he wrote.

He also wrote that net neutrality is key to the Web's future. "Debate has risen again in the past year about whether government legislation is needed to protect net neutrality. It is," he wrote.

He sounded baffled by a suggestion from Google and Verizon earlier this year that net neutrality should not apply to mobile phones. "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," he wrote.

If the basic principles of the Web are upheld--including support for open standards, making data openly shareable, and net neutrality--the Web promises some "fantastic future capabilities," he said.

Linked data is one example of future promise. Tagging individual pieces of data, within a document for example, would allow applications to read and manipulate more information. That could help scientists, for example, more easily collect all data on a certain subject.

"The goal of the Web is to serve humanity," he wrote. "We build it now so that those who come to it later will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine."

Nancy Gohring covers mobile phones and cloud computing for The IDG News Service. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @idgnancy. Nancy's e-mail address is Nancy_Gohring@idg.com

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags governmentinternetGoogleFacebookApplelegislationtim berners-leeInternet service providers

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Nancy Gohring

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Laura Johnston

MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

If you can afford the price tag, it is well worth the money. It out performs any other laptop I have tried for gaming, and the transportable design and incredible display also make it ideal for work.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?