When Facebook disabled Australians’ access to news articles on its platform, and blocked sharing of articles from Australian news organizations, the company moved a step closer to killing the World Wide Web – the hyperlink-based system of freely connecting online sites created in 1989 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
Though the social media giant has said it will return to the negotiating table and restore news for now, the company has shown its hand – and how it is continuing to reshape the web.
As a social media scholar, I see clearly that the internet in 2021 is not the same open public sphere that Berners-Lee envisioned. Rather, it is a constellation of powerful corporate platforms that have come to dominate how people use the internet, what information they get and who is able to profit from it.
Paying for News
The Australian government’s legislative efforts aim to support the news industry by helping to broker a deal whereby Facebook would pay Australian news organizations for content posted on its platform by users. Right now, Facebook isn’t required to pay for news in any way, and the company objected to this new potential cost of business.
Berners-Lee warned the Australian government the proposed law could undermine free linking, which he called a “fundamental principle of the web.” Facebook’s own statement of self-defense focused on Berners-Lee’s argument, saying Facebook provides value to news organizations by linking to them. But their statements show that neither has acknowledged that Facebook has, for many people, effectively become the web.
Back in the 1980s, Berners-Lee envisioned the web as a network of community-minded academic researchers sharing their knowledge quickly and conveniently across the world. The main mechanism for this was the hyperlink – text that, when clicked on, led readers to something they were interested in, or to supporting material on the actual source’s website. This meant information was freely exchanged, with attribution. The priority was helping users find the material they wanted, wherever it was online.
Berners-Lee’s design serves the reader, but not everyone was as public-spirited: Companies like Facebook have been moving away from this principle since the web’s founding. These corporate platforms are designed to capture and dominate users’ attention – and turn it into money.
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