Is Facebook a Threat to the Web?

Contributing Editor

Sir Tim Berners-Lee has been in the news this week following his article “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality” which appeared in Scientific American.

The web’s inventor criticized Apple and it’s proprietary ‘iTunes’ addresses:

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.

However, his biggest concerns regard for the social networks Facebook, LinkedIn, and Friendster:

The Web as we know it 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.

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.

Sir Tim’s main complaint is that, although these sites build amazing databases from your data and connections, they do not share that information. Your Facebook data is siloed on Facebook — it cannot be exported or used by another application (other than those within Facebook itself).

Google has also questioned Facebook’s ethics. A Facebook user attempting to import GMail contacts is now shown the message:

Hold on a second. Are you super sure you want to import your contact information for your friends into a service that won’t let you get it out?

Although we strongly disagree with this data protectionism, the choice is yours. Because, after all, you should have control over your own data.

The Facebook phenomenon

Facebook is the most-used site on the Web with more than 500 million active users. It’s growth has been exponential — people who joined persuaded their friends to join.

I have to admit I’m not a Facebook fan, but I eventually succumbed. The main reason: friends and colleagues were using Facebook to send messages and organize events. Irritatingly, the site would email me to say “you have a message” … but not let me access the information until I became a member. I suspect many people sign-up for similar reasons — even Sir Tim has a Facebook account!

The system’s ease, third-party applications and sheer volume of users makes it tough for other social networks to compete. For some people, Facebook is the Web.

Who owns your data?

You. Many countries — including those in the EU, the UK and Australia — have strict data protection laws. Any organization holding data about you must disclose that information on request. Although, Facebook is based in the US where data legislation is more relaxed, I’m certain they would comply with any demands.

The complaint made by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Google is that Facebook won’t allow data to be accessed programmatically by other systems once a user has granted approval.

Should Facebook share?

Facebook does their utmost to ensure you stay within their site. The service is free and advertising is the primary source of revenue. There’s no technical reason why they couldn’t expose data, but sharing with another service would come at the expense of Facebook.com. Twitter is a well-known example: many tweets are sent using third-party clients rather than the Twitter.com website.

There’s also the complex issue of data protection. Facebook probably knows more about you and your relationships than many of your closest friends and relatives! The company has been slammed for dubious privacy policies, so it’s difficult to accuse them of not sharing enough.

Will Facebook destroy the Web?

Facebook is a commercial company: their a goal to gain users and make them stay. They wouldn’t hesitate to wipe the Web so only Facebook.com remained.

I understand Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s concerns. Facebook’s size makes it a social networking monopoly with the power to exploit or close off areas of the Net. However, many companies have tried to dominate the Web before: most failed because they forgot that it’s the users who have real control.

The Web’s success owes much to Facebook but, ultimately, users are fickle; they will leave if they’re bored, find a better service or become frustrated by closed-data policies. Facebook’s decline would be just as impressive as it’s growth.

What do you think? Should we be concerned about major websites not sharing user data? Or will their policies doom them to failure?

Free book: Jump Start HTML5 Basics

Grab a free copy of one our latest ebooks! Packed with hints and tips on HTML5's most powerful new features.

  • Anonymous

    Tim is right about iTunes, but iTunes users have the easiest possible workaround: just open iTunes and search under the band’s name. I just tell people to search iTunes for my band’s name. Done. In fact more people access bands’ websites by a name search than by typing a url anyway.

    Yes, FB is limited to your friends, but so was myspace and all the others. The quandary for a business or band is that while FB limits to their network, the “wide open web” actually isn’t as good. With billions of competing websites out there, just posting something up on your .com website (where there are no filtering networks) doesn’t guarantee large numbers of people will look at it. At least my FB and twitter posts actually flash on the screens of my friends at least for a little while after they are posted. And FB has the events reminder feature in the RH sidebar that brings your event back on your network’s radar as the time approaches.

    Way more people see my stuff on FB than visit my .com. So actually FB is gaining me wider exposure than my unfiltered .com at this point.

    Even if you are a big celebrity, having an FB or twitter significantly increases (if not doubles or triples) the amount of people seeing your stuff.

    So yes the web is wide open, but Sir Tim’s argument is like saying if you take a car from NY to LA you will miss all the cool stuff you can’t see from the car. OK, but what’s the alternative? Walking so you see all the cool stuff? Of course the problem is you’ll never get there; hence the need for a car.

    • Howdy_McGee

      Itunes is a Application based on your desktop. Like a Desktop Application! woah! it’s not quite a web application so it doesn’t surprise me that it doesn’t have links to music… …

  • http://www.lunadesign.org awasson

    I’m not sure I would want to share my GMail data with anyone anyway.

    I think there’s a big difference between sharing general information on web sites and sharing personal information…. Facebook has been called out by their members to ensure that their personal information isn’t shared in the open. You can’t share information openly and protect it at the same time so I would rather have the information siloed myself.

  • Pcoussa

    I hate Facebook as well. I too succumbed and created an account. What do you do?

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      It’s funny, but I find the majority of people in the IT profession don’t like Facebook or can’t see the point. However, non-technical users seem to love it?

      • Anonymous

        Very true, I notice this as well.

      • Wolf_22

        I’m so tired of this social crap that half the time, I want to puke. The bad thing is that everyone and their damn cousin uses it.

        It’s almost inescapable anymore. Even my boss at work created a group on Facebook for us all to use…

        Ridiculous.

      • http://icoland.com/ glenngould

        I enjoy developing Facebook applications.

      • ender3711

        Yeah, I wouldn’t say that. You make it sound like it’s impossible to be shelled into your home server, nerding out on your latest-greatest script, and have a facebook tab open. Which I do almost daily. In fact, I’ve found that most of my “IT” buddies (if you wanna use such a degrading term as “IT”) are somewhat active posters on facebook. But really – I could see it go both ways. If you’re a socially inept nerd living in your moms basement … sure, facebook probably looks like a waste of time. But if you’re more than just a nerd – and you realize that social interaction plays a vital role in business development and getting people to be interested in your latest app … then social networking takes on a whole new life.
        Just sayin’ … I don’t really care either way. And if facebook does destroy the web, I still have my home network to dork around on.
        oh – also … GO SATAN! :P

  • Just a Joe

    Let them do what ever they want with their dot com. Who cares. Just don’t create regulations that threatens small business. Regulation can destroy competition and cause others to have to listen to big sister/brother. Who does regulation really favor? Remember, regulation against big corporations can also put regulation in place that threatens small business and their ability to compete. Be sure to think about this, because the devil is always in the details.

    Just enforce current antitrust laws. Facebook is already a social networking monopoly, since the current oligarchy in the U.S. already owns them.

    Google fighting with Facebook sounds like a dog and pony show for the sheep, produced by the oligarchy.

  • yoddha

    I wondered most of the article what data on Facebook you’re referring too?
    And maybe more so, how you (and Sir Tim) would like to get peoples data from Facebook.

    I mean you mentioned Twitter, and that most tweets sent from 3rd-party apps, but there are as many Facebook apps as there are Twitter apps. If not it’s they developers fault not Facebook’s? Isn’t it?

    The Graph API gives you pretty good access to Everything (almost) on Facebook, of course given the users has given his “blessing” !

    What if Facebook indeed did open up completely??
    Well, you know some of these privacy complaints and articles media & blogs have been slamming FB for… How many and how bad do you think they would sound after they “open their doors”….

    Or maybe I misunderstood the article!?

  • Team

    I personally dislike a lot about facebook, use only a limited number of features and would love to be able to export my data from it but I’ll play devil’s advocate and make some points.
    If you could download all your data from facebook, your friend network, your farm, your photos, there’s nothing for you to do with it. There’s no way of using a list of people’s names to ensure you can connect with people in another social network program. You really need emails and other data attached to those names to identify people and then exporting that gets much more complicated. How much data on my friends do I get to export? After all I get to see your status updates so why shouldn’t I be able to take that history with me?
    There are a number of facebook aspects that you can access via other programs. An RSS feed of your newsfeed (http://www.facebook.com/help/?topic=subscriptions) and Facebook chat is now supported in a number of desktop clients (http://www.facebook.com/help/?page=1164)
    Really the issue is they don’t provide the whole experience of facebook so people have to click through to reply or simply go straight to the web app.
    APIs and machine readability are really only just taking off, we don’t have any rules or standards for standard contact formats, let alone about what data is whose (although mozilla’s working on something that looks promising: https://mozillalabs.com/contacts/ ).
    So to sum up: what would you do with your data?, APIs are available they just need to be made better and we need some standards for contacts. You own your data but when it’s out, it’s out. Remember that before you post those drunken photos. Facebook should share, it’s gotten better but like everyone has a way to go.
    And no way will facebook destroy the web.

  • http://www.assemblysys.com/dataServices/index.php mniessen

    “The web’s success owes much to Facebook”
    Really????

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      Only in that, if it weren’t for Facebook, many people wouldn’t bother using the web. I know several people who start their PC, launch IE, type “Facebook” into Google, and stay on the site for hours.

      I can’t see the appeal myself, but I guess I’m not a typical Fb user!

      • http://www.assemblysys.com/dataServices/index.php mniessen

        I had assumed that’s what you meant, but I just had to be sure ;)

        The problem I see is that those users are most at risk with Facebook privacy issues. It’s difficult for anyone to keep up with the regular changes in the settings and allow sharing the right kind of data with the right kind of people, but it’s even harder for people who spend 90% of their “computer time” on Facebook (and the remaining 10% on YouTube watching dog tricks).
        Considering that, it might be a blessing that Facebook doesn’t share the data, or many people would share with other sites information they don’t realise they are sharing (things they wouldn’t even share on Facebook if they knew about/understood all those privacy settings).

        I must say I’m even more an atypical web user than you are, since I’m one of the few people who spend at least 12 hours a day in front of my PC and do NOT have a Facebook account. Any time I have the opportunity, I tell my friends exactly how much Facebook cares about you personal information, so they know they have to contact me by e-mail, phone, messenger or in person (you know, all those things you used to use to get in touch with each other in the pre-Zuckerberg era).
        That said, I really don’t understand why I’m never invited to any party or event… :P

  • http://sanketspace.blogspot.com/ i_sanket

    We will have too see, I am from India and India too has some strong Data Protection laws.
    Many of my friends have started saying things about facebook

  • sumeshbabu

    I don’t think Facebook will be a threat, rather become more useful for any occasion.

  • somezing

    For me the worst thing in FB is that your data stays locked in their app. You can feed information to facebook from almost everywhere, but if you want that information back, for example for displaying in your website, it is very limited, as far as I know.

  • Art

    Jeffrey Tucker had this to say about the current criticism leveled against Facebook: “… success is more likely to be met by envy, hate, disparagement, put downs, and loathing, sometimes from the most unexpected sources” in his par excellence A Movie That Gets It Right

  • TheMonk

    Just an observation about the article overall but I think the point Tim Berners-Lee was trying to make didn’t necessarily begin and end at facebook. So to be fair this article really should be about any company that tries to lock off or otherwise control access to information.

    This is something that isn’t unique to facebook unfortunately and is becoming all the more common place on the web. The fact that the public (and that includes all of us on here) is not making a fuss over it is really the big issue here and in my opinion much bigger than what someone thinks about facebook.

    This is corporations dipping their toe in the pool and finding out just how much the public will let them get away with without complaining about access to information. They’ve found out that after all the initial flack the public really doesn’t as care much about access to information as we made it sound.

    We’re only a few degrees short of the privatized corporate controlled web. We’re already seeing it now, itunes, facebook etc… if you think the degree these companies are controlling the internet is bad just wait.

    That shift in control and the apparent public apathy about it is the real story here in my opinion.

  • StevenHu

    I make links to my apps in the iTunes store via http://itunes.com/apps/persons-name (which shows all my apps) or http://itunes.com/apps/app-name (which shows just one app.) I want my FB stuff walled off from the rest of the world. The whole idea is to keep it private, allowing only certain people to see my posts.

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      If you want to keep stuff private, don’t post it on a public network! None of the social networks will ever be 100% secure.

  • http://www.megapixeljourneys.com/ MJ Pieterse

    I can’t comment on the whole iTunes thing at all as i’ve never really used it, but what i have used of it, i disliked. i know there are a lot of people who “hate” facebook but i actually have no comment about it… in fact… if i HAVE to say something about it, it would be that Facebook was probably the first social network to get people to start interacting with the web and social networks. I know a lot of people who would not allow their children or partners to be part of social networks because of the believe they had around it… that it was bad and you had no security. I love the way facebook lets me set my own privacy settings (even if people complain about it having to many.. it gives you the freedom to share what you want to whom you want to). I don’t really believe that all the information is ever kept ‘secret’ but you surely should have the choice without being forced to reveal all… and if you don’t want to, then don’t load it onto the net! Facebook opened the door for web development and new users :D my personal opinion.

    • http://www.megapixeljourneys.com/ MJ Pieterse

      okay, so as with ender3711, i also had to go and do some reading about everything! this guy is quite genius… i also did not read the article that he posted and based my opinions purely on the article above. So silly of me!!!

      I must say now that i actually do agree with TBL and the way he created it and intended for the web to work…

      Well… all will change with the official launch of the Semantic Web

  • ender3711

    Oh … also … “the inventor of the web” … really? That’s a pretty far stretch to say that the web has one single inventor … considering ARPANET was the first network designed by multiple researchers and developers.
    Remember when Al Gore tried to take credit for inventing the web?
    Next time I hear one single name attributed to the hundreds of thousands of man hours put in my hundreds of thousands of developers and researchers into the development of the network … I’m gonna puke.

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      Yes, TBL did invent the web and the first web server at CERN in 1989.

      He didn’t invent the Internet, TCP or any of the other technologies required for the web to function. Obviously, the web is very different now, but it was his original idea. Unlike Al Gore, he deserves credit for it’s invention.

      • ender3711

        well, still – I definitely give props where props are due. I wasn’t aware that he built the first “web server” … I’ll have to check into that. But I wouldn’t say development of the first web server gives him the title of “inventor of the web”
        Just as you wouldn’t want to dub Albert Einstein the “inventor of the atomic bomb”
        Probably wouldn’t sit too well with him anyway :P

      • ender3711

        maybe I’m not as big of a geek as I thought I was :D Interesting wikipedia page on him. Eh … maybe I’ll have to lower my wanna-be defenses on this and just accept it.

      • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

        Crikey, what more do you want?! He created the first web server. He wrote the first web browser. He devised HTML (based on SGML). He proposed the use of hypertext documents. He created the first ever web page.

        Sure, lots of people have improved on his ideas and technologies, but he did invent the web as you know it.

      • ender3711

        heh – oh alright.
        He has my seal of approval :P
        Guess we know where that puts me.
        I use the web, I develop on the web, I program servers … but alas, I have no idea where it all came from. Now I’m questioning my existence as a programmer. Like a Christian that barely found out there’s a book called the Bible.
        After reading up on him, I would have to say – he’s pretty freakin rad.