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?
Craig is a freelance UK web consultant who built his first page for IE2.0 in 1995. Since that time he's been advocating standards, accessibility, and best-practice HTML5 techniques. He's created enterprise specifications, websites and online applications for companies and organisations including the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Microsoft, and more. He's written more than 1,000 articles for SitePoint and you can find him @craigbuckler.