More than a decade ago, in a prescient essay for Scientific American, the inventor of the World Wide Web denounced what Facebook and other tech giants were doing to his signature invention. “Why should you care?” Tim Berners-Lee wrote at the time. “Because the Web is yours.” These companies, he warned, were restructuring the web itself, turning an expanse of interconnected websites all built on the same open infrastructure into a series of “fragmented islands” where users were kept hostage.
On Facebook’s island, he wrote, people give over their entire digital life for the chance to connect with their friends, but have no way to transfer their information to any other platform. Once captive, users upload photos, add friends, send messages, click ads, and react to posts, all the while leaving a trail of information from which Facebook can profit. The more they do these things, the harder leaving becomes—so much of people’s digital life is nested in Facebook, rather than in Facebook’s rivals. The logic extends to other tech platforms too. On Apple’s island, Berners-Lee explained, iTunes users can tap into an immense catalog of music but can’t easily share it with anyone. “You are trapped in a single store, rather than being on the open marketplace,” Berners-Lee wrote. “For all the store’s wonderful features, its evolution is limited to what one company thinks up.”