Facebook, Apple and other big beneficiaries of the world wide web are now threatening to break it apart, creating a series of "fragmented islands", the medium's inventor warns.
In an essay published on Friday in Scientific American a month ahead of the web's 20th birthday, Sir Tim Berners-Lee warned of a series of disturbing trends, including state and private snooping on web activity, and called for legislation to protect net neutrality.
"The web evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles," he wrote. "The web as we know it, however, is being threatened" as "some of its most successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles".
Mr Berners-Lee said corporations epitomise internet success - Apple, Facebook and Google - are turning the web into "fragmented islands" by trying to keep their audiences captive or cutting deals that could favour some parts of the web over others.
He said that dominant social network Facebook, Apple's iTunes digital store and others encourage users to submit data, note what they are listening to or watching, but then keep it from being widely accessible.
The director of the World Wide Web Consortium argued that such actions are compounded when publishers and other companies focus on the apps that run on top of platforms including Facebook and Apple's iPhone and iPad. This makes these enclosed spaces more valuable for users without them being accessible to a wider web population.
Mr Berners-Lee's chief argument with Google over net neutrality - which would ensure companies provide internet access equally for all users - stems from the search engine and smartphone software maker's conceptual agreement with top US wireless carrier Verizon in August.
That agreement on the principles of net neutrality exempted wireless traffic, leading Julius Genachowski, chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission, to complain this week that it had slowed his efforts at forging a larger consensus.
"Many people in rural areas from Utah to Uganda have access to the internet only via mobile phones; exempting wireless from net neutrality would leave these users open to discrimination of service," Mr Berners-Lee wrote.
The warnings come as the number of people on the internet continues to grow by more than 10 per cent each year.
Apple and Google declined to respond to Mr Berners-Lee's essay.
Credit: By Joseph Menn and Chris Nuttall in San Francisco