Tim Berners-Lee: Tell Facebook, Google you want your data back

The father of the World Wide Web says having all that data could have "tremendous potential to help humanity."

Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
3 min read
Tim Berners-Lee
Tim Berners-Lee Rafe Needleman/CNET

Tim Berners-Lee, known as the father of the World Wide Web, says Internet users should demand all of their inaccessible data from Facebook, Google, and every other major Web site.

"One of the issues of social networking silos is that they have the data and I don't," Berners-Lee told The Guardian in an interview published today. "There are no programs that I can run on my computer which allow me to use all the data in each of the social networking systems that I use plus all the data in my calendar plus in my running map site, plus the data in my little fitness gadget and so on to really provide an excellent support to me."

To Berners-Lee, technology has the unique ability to understand more about its users than we might give it credit for. He pointed to his smartphone, which, by sitting in his pocket, knows "how much exercise I've been getting and how many stairs I've been walking up and so on." He also told The Guardian that his habits on his computer indicate his health and places he's been.

Human interaction with technology -- and thus, Web sites -- could make everything far more personalized, Berners-Lee said in the interview. And such personalization, he told The Guardian, could present "tremendous potential to help humanity" by expanding the usability of other sites that can access a person's data across a wide array of services.

Berners-Lee has been ringing the data-openness bell for years. Back in 2010, he criticized sites like Facebook and LinkedIn for a "silo" approach that keeps user data self-contained and incapable of being easily transferred from one site to another, where that data might be of greater use.

"If we, the Web's users, allow these and other trends to proceed unchecked, the Web could be broken into fragmented islands," he wrote in Scientific American in 2010. "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."

The stakes, Berners-Lee told The Guardian, could be high. He pointed out that as quickly as some Web services soar in popularity, they too might fail. For example, Digg, once the dominant player in the social-news sector of the Web, is now an also-ran behind Reddit and countless other news-aggregation sites. Berners-Lee argues that today's Web users should anticipate that, and if the online community could come to some sort of understanding on data portability, taking data from a declining site, like Digg, and transferring it to the rising star could create a more appealing online experience.

But as with anything else, there's a financial component in all of this. User data is a revenue opportunity, and sharing it with others isn't always in the best interests of a Web company. Facebook, for example, applies user information to its social advertising to help companies target people more effectively; it's one of many companies that rely on data to increase revenue. Allowing data to be tossed across the Web to any and all competitors isn't necessarily something that companies may wish to do.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin may be one of the folks who agrees with Berners-Lee, even though the latter also took aim at the search giant. In an interview with The Guardian that was published on Sunday, Brin made it clear that he believes an "open" Internet is good for everyone and that user data could go a long way in improving innovation across the Web.

"You have to play by their rules, which are really restrictive," Brin said of Apple and Facebook, two companies that he believes are too closed-off. "The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the Web was so open. Once you get too many rules that will stifle innovation."

Updated at 9:07 a.m. PT to include more details.