Tim Berners-Lee Calls Facebook a Walled Garden – Is That Fair?

This week the Web’s inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, published an article in Scientific American promoting open standards and net neutrality. In the article, he takes aim at Facebook for being a “walled garden.” He claims that Facebook and other social networks are “walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web.” If Facebook and others proceed unchecked, warns Sir Tim, then “the Web could be broken into fragmented islands” and “we could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want.”

But how fair is that argument? Proponents of Facebook’s Graph API point out that third party sites can access as much of a user’s Facebook data as that user allows.

The Graph API allows third party web sites to access to Facebook’s “social graph” data. The social graph is a term that was popularized by and is often used by Facebook. It refers to information about people, photos, events and pages; along with the connections between them such as friend relationships, shared content, and photo tags. As a Hacker News user noted, the social graph allows third party services to access everything about a Facebook user “except for email addresses of friends.”

The crux of the issue that Sir Tim raises is that users cannot export their social graph data to other services. Third party services can make use of the data, but you cannot for example bring all of your Facebook friends data into your Google Account.

Indeed, earlier this month Google put up a message warning its users about importing their contact information from Google into “a service that won’t let you get it out” (meaning Facebook).


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Sir Tim appears to agree with Google, as he accuses Facebook – along with others such as LinkedIn and Friendster (does that still exist?) – of operating “a silo, walled off” from the rest of the Web. Here’s his full quote:

“Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster and others typically provide value by capturing information as you enter it: your birthday, your e-mail address, your likes, and links indicating who is friends with whom and who is in which photograph. The sites assemble these bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service–but only within their sites. Once you enter your data into one of these services, you cannot easily use them on another site. Each site is a silo, walled off from the others. Yes, your site’s pages are on the Web, but your data are not. You can access a Web page about a list of people you have created in one site, but you cannot send that list, or items from it, to another site.”

Facebook would argue that these “brilliant databases,” which Sir Tim refers to, are not silos – because they are open to re-use by third party sites.

However Sir Tim adds that “each piece of information [in Facebook] does not have a URI” – in other words, a specific Web address.

Facebook says that while each piece of a Facebook user’s data isn’t a URI, a lot of those pieces can be accessed via its Graph API. And all of those available pieces have an ID. Facebook has also argued in the past that it uses open Web standards in its Graph API. For example, it uses OAuth 2.0 for authorization.

Sir Tim is absolutely correct to point out the danger, because the fact is that Facebook’s Graph API is not an open standard agreed upon by the W3C or another standards body. Therefore it could, theoretically, be abused at some point in the future by Facebook. At any time, Facebook could change the rules of the Graph API and either block third party sites from accessing certain data or limit the usage. Or Facebook could charge money for third parties to access that data.

Imagine for example if Facebook decided to limit access to just 100 of any given user’s friends. The only way a user could then take full advantage of her “social graph” would be within Facebook. In other words, inside the walled garden.

Google sees all too well this danger and this is why it is attempting to publicly shame Facebook into allowing its users to export all of their data.

Sir Tim continues:

“Connections among data exist only within a site. So the more you enter, the more you become locked in. Your social-networking site becomes a central platform–a closed silo of content, and one that does not give you full control over your information in it. The more this kind of architecture gains widespread use, the more the Web becomes fragmented, and the less we enjoy a single, universal information space.”

Think about all of the data that you entered into Facebook over the past week. Your thoughts about a social event that you went to in the weekend. The few more friends that you added to your social network. The brand Pages that you ‘liked.’ The comments you left on a number of your friends profiles. All of that information and more is controlled by Facebook. It’s also likely that a lot of that data isn’t accessible unless you are logged into Facebook. In other words, it’s not part of the open Web and cannot be searched for and found in Google.

Is it fair then for Sir Tim to accuse Facebook of being a walled garden? Yes it is. Your social graph data actually belongs to Facebook – not us, as much as Sir Tim would like it to. Unless that changes and Facebook allows users to export their data, Facebook will continue to wield a lot of power on the Web. I can’t see them giving that power up, can you?

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