The web has worked its way into most of our lives to such an extent that it’s easy to take it for granted, and to forget what an incredible resource it is, or the powerful things that it allows us to do as a society. But Sir Tim Berners-Lee — the man who created the web 20 years ago next month, on his desktop computer in Geneva — says there are threats to the freedom of the web all around us, and that we need to fight them in the same way we fight to protect our freedoms in the real world.
Where are those online threats coming from? Berners-Lee says, “large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web,” in what appears to be a clear reference to Facebook’s walled-garden approach to sharing things like the email addresses of its users, and he later mentions Facebook specifically as “a silo.” The other potential threats, he says, include wireless Internet providers who are “being tempted to slow traffic to sites with which they have not made deals,” and also governments — totalitarian and democratic alike — who are “monitoring people’s online habits [and] endangering important human rights.”
The father of the web even takes what appears to be a thinly veiled shot at Apple, saying if the trends he’s describing toward more closed environments on the web aren’t checked, “we could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want [and] the ill effects could extend to smartphones and pads, which are also portals to the extensive information that the Web provides.” Later in the piece, he mentions Apple specifically as one of the companies that doesn’t support open linking to things like songs within iTunes. He says most magazine iPad apps are “closed worlds” because they also fail to allow for links or sharing of content.
In some ways, Berners-Lee’s list of threats to the open web sound very much like the recent Wired magazine piece entitled “The Web is Dead,” which also looked at the rise of apps and the move towards AOL-style walled gardens. Wired’s piece got some criticism from many (including me) because it seemed to be overly negative, especially since much of what the magazine described as non-web — smartphone apps and so on — still depends on web protocols, even if they are hidden from view. But Berners-Lee echoes Wired’s concerns about large players controlling access to information in various ways.
Others have raised similar warning flags about potential threats to the open web from giant information quasi-monopolies such as Google, Facebook and Apple — including Tim Wu, the Columbia University law professor who coined the term “net neutrality,” and warns in his recent book The Master Switch that instead of a monument to the open market, the Internet is starting to look “like a Monopoly board,” and that the Internet may even tend to favor monopolies.
Not everyone agrees, however, that Google or Facebook are actually monopolies in any kind of legal sense, although they are definitely dominant players. And while Google is clearly a web giant, Yahoo and AOL were once web giants too, and they are shadows of their former selves now, displaced by completely new players. Even Facebook, which is now seen as one of the companies to be afraid of, is threatened in many ways by Twitter — a startup that barely even existed a few years ago and is now reportedly valued at close to $3 billion.
That said, it’s worth being reminded that large players often see it as being in their interests to restrict the freedom of their users, and that — as Berners-Lee warns in his Scientific American piece — this can chip away at the web’s core principles, which he says revolve around “a profound concept: that any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere.” If that becomes circumscribed by the companies controlling the flow of that information, he says, “the Web could be broken into fragmented islands.” Why should we care about these potential incursions into the open web? Berners-Lee says:
Because the Web is yours. It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium. It brings principles established in the U.S. Constitution, the British Magna Carta and other important documents into the network age: freedom from being snooped on, filtered, censored and disconnected.
More critical to free speech than any other medium? That’s a strong claim — but there’s certainly an argument to be made that the web fits that definition. The ability to send information to anyone, to link to content wherever it exists, and to publish almost instantly seems so commonplace now that we forget how important it is, in almost exactly the same way democracy itself is important. It’s good to be reminded, and Tim Berners-Lee is certainly the one who is best equipped to do so.
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