Berners-Lee: Apple, Facebook are enemies of the web

By Kevin Kelleher
November 22, 2010

2010 is a great time for the web. Innovation is thriving as new services and content flourish on smartphones and laptops, thanks in good part to industry leaders like Apple and Facebook.

But according to Tim Berners-Lee, – often called “ the father of the web” – the open and democratic structure of the web is threatened by sinister forces trying to redesign the web in ways that make it more closed for their own personal gain. These enemies of the web don’t just include totalitarian governments. They include industry leaders like Apple and Facebook.

As the web turns 20, Berners-Lee has written a 3,800-word article for Scientific American celebrating its achievements and documenting threats to its future. Most of his words are dedicated to the threats.

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. Large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web. Wireless Internet providers are being tempted to slow traffic to sites with which they have not made deals. Governments—totalitarian and democratic alike—are monitoring people’s online habits, endangering important human rights.

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. The ill effects could extend to smartphones and pads, which are also portals to the extensive information that the Web provides.

Social network sites like Facebook, Berners-Lee says, are silos, connecting data and content only within its walled gardens. Apple’s iTunes traps people into a proprietary store. Even Google, whose search revenue is dependent on an open web, is chided for abandoning its support of Net neutrality. All lead to a fragmented web, damaging the “single, universal information space” that made it work in the first place. They can also breed monopolies, which the web was initially designed to resist.

These tech giants might dismiss these arguments as alarmist and argue that their success shows that people are responding to the way a less-open web is evolving. Their counter-arguments might be more persuasive if the Cassandra making the warnings wasn’t Tim Berners-Lee.

Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt all owe a huge debt to Berners-Lee and everything he has fought to achieve over the past two decades. They know they would be nowhere without the web as he designed it – even as they pick apart at the very principles of openness that made the web the web.

6 comments

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It must be hard for an academic to accept that businesses in this arena, like other arenas, seek to profit from sales of goods and services. He seems to have had some dreams that the WWW would be a happy wonderland where pixies and unicorns would play together freely. Bringing a computer seller and music retailer into the same critical essay as governments (like China and Iran) is quite ludicrous — what commerce channels customers choose to use, and what ‘social’ networks people elect to waste their time on is not even nearly comparable to the actions perpetrated by unelected governments in censoring and surveilling the populations. Ludicrous.

Posted by tangogo68 | Report as abusive

Give the man a break…if not for his and Robert Cailliau’s brilliant work on hypertext you would not even be able to read nor make a ludicrous comment such as yours on a web-page such as this.

Posted by dominoeffect | Report as abusive

Tangogo68 posits that “Bringing a computer seller and music retailer into the same critical essay as governments (like China and Iran) is quite ludicrous.”

Tangogo68 must have been busy downloading Itunes to his smartphone during the class on Fascism. Fascists seek to organize a nation according to corporatist perspectives, values, and systems, including the political system and the economy.

In a glaring case of the pot calling the kettle black Tea Party Zealots and Republicans speak of creeping socialism while concurrently the U.S. Supreme court grants faceless corporations unbridled media access for propagandistic electioneering.

“Unelected” governments are possible anywhere, anytime, absent equal and unfettered media access for all citizens, regardless of one’s ability to pay.

Posted by Vertigo | Report as abusive

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‘Vertigo’ — where did you get the silly idea that there had ever been (anytime, anywhere) this so-called “equal and unfettered media access for all citizens” ? — do you think you sound clever to compare Google or Apple to fascists ? — I don’t know whether that is more insulting to the victims of actual repressive governments, or to the people who use these companies’ products — are you trying to imply that Facebook account holders are supporting fascism or the tea party, or that folks listening to ipods are lackeys for totalitarian governments ? — I think if you consider ‘Tangogo68′s comments more rationally, you’ll find that they were saying that the conflation of Apple-Google etc with China-Iran etc is illogical and unhelpful — maybe you were in the wrong class on fascism to make such delusional conclusions yourself.

Posted by Broadhurst | Report as abusive

Tangogo68 typifies the cyber-neanderthal mentality – a believer that the web should bea repository for trash, trivia and ordure. He thinks (oxymoron – sorry!) the web was created solely for selling crap manufactured by eight-year-olds in Third World sweatshops to lamebrains from Hicksville USA. Berners-Lee took a more civilized view.

Posted by RyeCatcher | Report as abusive

Whoa — now that ‘Vertigo’ and ‘RyeCatcher’ have criticised me, I realise the error of my ways — of course I now see clearly that Google and Facebook are indeed fascists with their corporatist values, and I was wrong for thinking that the best thing about the web was whatever ‘RyeCatcher’ meant with that well-thought-through analysis — I imagine they are referring to Apple, who apparently use children in sweat-shops, and (even worse) sell to “lamebrains” in some town named after a certain Hicks — where does such a ridiculous comment even come from ? — what part of my comment leads you to write the bit about trash and trivia ? — why such anger towards an ironic observation ? — it’s a good job that you’ve fixed my wrong-headedness with your cogent arguments.

Posted by tangogo68 | Report as abusive

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