Rebuilding The Web

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What should be the new mission of W3C?

As a new CEO of W3C takes the reins, the mission of W3C is getting a look over. W3C is the self-appointed steward of the Web. What happens at W3C will ultimately affect us all because the Web has become an integral part of our society. Going forward, W3C has made a commitment to be mindful of the needs of all Web users. How will they fulfill this commitment? And do you trust W3C to represent your interests?

A matter of trust

W3C has struggled with issues of trust since its inception. In 1998, an article entitled "The Web's Unelected Government" published by MIT's "Technology Review" revealed that many shared a mistrust of W3C. Technology Review editor-in-chief, John Benditt questioned the impartiality of W3C members who "...have a financial stake in the Internet-including such giants as Microsoft and Sun".

If all stakeholders in Web technology had a properly balance influence at W3C, and if there was an arms length relationship between paying members and the specification authors, mistrust would not be an issue. But the reality is that W3C is run like a business, where paying members get disproportionate representation and exercise disproportionate influence, and where some paying members actually get to write specifications that are clearly in their own self-interest. The interests of other stakeholders in Web technology are marginalized or ignored.

Even among the dominant (paying) players at W3C there is mistrust. A few years ago, browser vendors who no longer trusted W3C to promote their interests started WHATWG, a competing standards group. WHATWG continued to work on the evolution of HTML but on a different tack that would support browser vendors' interests. Although there is now some level of co-operation between W3C and WHATWG, Ian Hickson, head of WHATWG, confirmed the continuing mistrust of W3C in his statement that WHATWG serves the role of "an established 'escape hatch' in the hopefully unlikely event of a failure in the W3C's HTML working group".

Focusing on the wrong stakeholders

Headshot of Jeffrey Jaffe.In a recent blog post, Jeffrey Jaffe, the new CEO of W3C, said "My first priority was to meet with the global stakeholders of the organization" and to determine "What are the stakeholders of W3C asking from us?" These statements show that W3C is squarely focused on its paying members who generate revenue for W3C through membership dues. Jeffrey Jaffe does mention the need to focus on other stakeholders in Web technology - users of the Web, but is this only lip service? How does W3C plan to become accountable to Web users? What effective processes exist that allow users of the Web to tell W3C that they are doing a crappy job as stewards of the Web, and that they need to consider replacing some of their stewards? How do the largest consumers of W3C standards - Web site creators - get to exercise proportionate influence? How can smaller vendors be heard if they cannot afford current W3C membership fees?

What is after all the mission?

W3C's mission used to be "To lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing protocols and guidelines that ensure long-term growth for the Web." Today, on its Web site, the mission statement reads, "W3C's vision for the Web involves participation, sharing knowledge, and thereby building trust on a global scale."

There is a big difference between the new and the old mission statements. Perhaps W3C failed to live up to the inspirational mission of the early years and now focuses on the one thing that eluded it over the years - trust?

Better than nothing, but not good enough

W3C may be better equipped than existing alternatives to develop future Web technologies, but that does not mean that W3C is doing things the right way. How is W3C going to change in order to be a better steward of the Web? What should W3C focus on going forward? Can W3C inspire people once again? And can an organization focused on money truly represent those who cannot or will not pay?

Public comments

1. Posted by Denis Boudreau
on Tuesday 2010-06-15 at 16:14:02 PST

Interesting discussion, wondering if people will bite.

Clearly, the W3C has been doing a few things wrong these past years (the xhtml fiasco that led to the foundation of WHATWG is but one of them) and clearly, it failed to generate trust and consensus on different issues but it's still the most viable option we have. I believe the W3C can still inspire us. At least, I am still inspired by it.

Yes, I am one of those people that only wish could afford membership for my organization. Yes, I am frustrated by it. But that's how it goes. W3C needs to finance it's work and we all need that work to be financed so until we can propose another model, we'll just have to live with it.

But still, when I really want to, I can make my voice heard and I can also be an agent of change. I can still contribute to the solution. I guess this isn't so bad after all.

I am somewhat saddened by this new mission statement. It's a lot less inspiring to me, even though I still stand by it because participation, sharing and trust are values I hold dear. Leading the web to it's full potential is such a strong statement, one I will always strive towards.

Perhaps, the W3C has realized it needed to work on those trust issues before it could actually work seriously on leading the web to it's full potential? Would that explain it?

Again, what other option do we have? Certainly not the WHATWG, especially after the recent crap going on in the development of html5 and the flabbergasted ego trips we've been witnessing. Certainly not some private corporation either (_place name here_, make your pick, lots of scary contenders to choose from), especially after the recent BS that went on in the Flash vs HTML5 so-called debate.

I believe that if it weren't for some people's ego getting so big, the fertilizer never would have hit the fan the way it did and we wouldn't be questionning the moral authority of the W3C so much. These people need to go away if they can't contribute positively anymore. However, what the WHATWG is doing might be a good thing after all. Our models behaviors need to be examined from time to time, if only to keep them in a straight line.

Is the W3C better than nothing? Maybe. Despite all this, Tim Berners-Lee has laid out a vision that is as inspiring to me and most people I know as Martin Luther-King's or J.F. Kennedy's were to my parents' generation.

I will stand by that and it will take a lot more for them to completely lose my trust in the Consortium that has done so much for us by driving the vision.

2. Posted by Jason Rogez
on Tuesday 2010-06-15 at 16:56:12 PST

With the recent fiascos such as the break-off of the w3c group to the WHATWG and the WCAG group break-off to the WCAG samurais; there is an obvious need to regroup, refocus and the current mission certainly isn't enough. WCAG's adjustment of the standard to fit with a vendor perception of accessibility is a good example of things going wrong. Let's hope the new CEO can bring back w3c to a point where it does better.

3. Posted by karl
on Tuesday 2010-06-15 at 17:58:27 PST

Many of your questions are contained in this unique sentence "How will they fulfill this commitment?"

The W3C was modeled at a time where it made sense to create a consortium (inspired from what X Consortium did). W3C has been started in October 1994. It started "with support from DARPA and the European Commission." [1] Then to be able to be independent, got enough paid Members for moving the work forward. The organization never charged for the specifications and pushed very hard to create the Royalty Free license for Web standards. The RF policy has been a tough fight in between different categories of W3C Members (and Web community included). W3C lost Members in this decision (which was good for the Web). Losing Members mean losing money.

It's why I come back to your question. "How will they fulfill this commitment?"

Basically, you can narrow the question to "Does W3C need permanent staff and infrastructure to achieve the work?" The W3C gets money from Members and grants which help finance some activities or some areas of work.

The money is used to pay the People working at W3C. [2] Some of these people are not even paid by W3C. The W3C is not rich[3], quite the opposite and it is sometimes difficult to reconcile different objectives. Many times, people have suggested to raise funds through campaigns to be able to pay People on something specific issues. For example, W3C tried to raise money for the validators through donations[4]. It doesn't work to the point to be able to pay the salary of an engineer for it.

The W3C staff includes people for servers, communications, administration and technical staff in charge of keeping the W3C Process on tracks. It is not very rewarding as a job. A lot of issues to deal with, and being the target for attacks by proxy. If something is wrong, this is W3C's fault. I often compared the W3C staff as UN peace keepers. No right to shoot, and in any circumstances trying to accommodate all point of views.

So basically, the question you have to answer are how to organize the manpower and the infrastructure in a way that will make possible to work in trust and peacefully. It is not easy to find the right *concrete* model which will actually work.

For example, some people ask for more documentation, tutorials. Some people require lively Web services such as the validators and others [5]. Managing a big group under the patent policy such as HTML WG is a daunting task. Having enough time to deal with issues and animating discussions is also difficult when not enough resources. More resources mean more money.

Where does W3C get the money? Or How do we change the infrastructure so W3C can work with the money? This is the real question to answer.


4. Posted by Robert
on Tuesday 2010-06-15 at 19:52:11 PST

@karl is getting lost in operational details. These infrastructure problems are a far less significant then the real problem plaguing W3C. W3C continues to be manipulated by its paying members, which makes the task of fixing the problems at W3C extremely difficult. For example, Charles McCathieNevile (goes by chaals) wrote "the creation of WHATWG was an overtly political act" which his employer (a paying member of W3C) orchestrated (with other paying members) against W3C. How can W3C change if its members are working to manipulate it, inside and outside the organization?

5. Posted by Robin Berjon
on Wednesday 2010-06-16 at 02:18:00 PST

@Robert: you're missing the point, and Karl is completely right. It reminds me of an old saying: "Armchair generals talk strategy; real generals talk logistics".

Standards are made by the people who show up to write them. What their motives are doesn't matter. Maybe they're contributing because they think they're doing the right thing, maybe it's because they want to push something that will make them money. The only thing that matters is that they are motivated to contribute. It's not "manipulation" — that's just conspiracy talk — it's participation. When you participate in something, you influence how it works. And that's perfectly fine.

The operational details that Karl provides reflect reality. W3C has a broad and extensive mission, a mission which it can only carry out based on the infrastructure provided by its most excellent Team. Budget restrictions have meant that the same mission has to be carried out with fewer people — a tall order.

And this is only getting worse. As the Web extends to farther and farther reaches of the world, there is more for W3C to do, all the while many feel that it is already not doing enough. So the question is indeed: how?

6. Posted by Benoit Goyette
on Wednesday 2010-06-16 at 06:38:30 PST

According to the W3C's mission statement page (

Their mission is:

"The W3C mission is to lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing protocols and guidelines that ensure the long-term growth of the Web. Below we discuss important aspects of this mission, all of which further W3C's vision of One Web."

While their vision is:

"W3C's vision for the Web involves participation, sharing knowledge, and thereby building trust on a global scale."

While their mission is their own goal they're trying to achieve, their vision is what they hope their subject will become, in this case, the Web.

7. Posted by Vlad Alexander
on Wednesday 2010-06-16 at 06:58:46 PST

Robin Berjon wrote: "Standards are made by the people who show up to write them."

Many talented people who want to contribute don't show up because a few influential people set the agenda. How would you recommend solving this problem?

Robin Berjon wrote: "What their motives are doesn't matter."

Self-interest is good but there needs to be a process that creates a level playing field. What is happening now within the HTML WG at W3C is that a few members write the spec to meet their own needs and then outside of W3C they use that spec to bash competitors.

Denis Boudreau wrote: "Again, what other option do we have?"

How about sending a message to W3C that their policies are inadequate to meet the needs of the new stakeholders in Web technology?

karl wrote: "Where does W3C get the money?"

Would money raised from new sources solve the problem raised by Robert?

8. Posted by karl
on Wednesday 2010-06-16 at 08:05:15 PST

@Vlad. The usual issue: questions, no propositions. All the issues you are mentioning are well-known. The interesting part of this discussion is not what you identify as issues (at least not alone), but the proposals you could suggest to solve it. With proposals, we can analyze them, test them, or explained what has been tried and failed.

Again it is not, Why, but How.

9. Posted by Vlad Alexander
on Wednesday 2010-06-16 at 08:37:35 PST

karl wrote: "The interesting part of this discussion is not what you identify as issues (at least not alone), but the proposals you could suggest to solve it."

Fair enough. Here is my solution to how to begin to fix the problems at W3C: suspend engagement with W3C. Those members that wield disproportionate influence over W3C need W3C to validate their efforts. They feed of the credibility other stakeholders lend to the organization. If these members see that W3C is in jeopardy they will actually work to build trust in the organization and be open to concessions that will balance the power at W3C. Then when there is a dialog established, policies can be put in place that will create an arms length relationship between money and influence. And discussions can begin about how to solve other problems.

10. Posted by karl
on Thursday 2010-06-17 at 03:43:16 PST

Hmm trying to follow your proposal in concrete terms.

"suspend engagement with W3C".

So the W3C decides that one company can not participate anymore? The W3C then reimburses the money and says "you come back when you are nicer in the group". Is that so?

So all participants belonging to this company in any Working Groups will have to stop right away the work, being Editor or not, positive participants, etc.

The money is lost then, we need at the same time to get rid of some staff too, so we do not jeopardize W3C.

Who decides to stop that participation at W3C? The other Members, AC Members, (group decision aka W3C) or the W3C neutral staff (employes of W3C)?

When do you accept the Member to participate again and on which criteria?

"Those members that wield disproportionate influence over W3C"

How do we measure that? What would be the criteria in your model? How do we decide between two members?

11. Posted by Vlad Alexander
on Thursday 2010-06-17 at 06:33:12 PST

karl wrote: "So the W3C decides that one company can not participate anymore?"

No. The stakeholders in Web technology decide to suspend engagement with W3C. They are members and non-members. Their participation gives credibility to W3C. Example of non-members include individuals who joined the HTML WG as invited experts or other stakeholders like myself (who work for a tool vendor), who have time, skill and interest to help develop future Web technology but will not participate in the current process.

karl wrote: "'Those members that wield disproportionate influence over W3C.' How do we measure that?"

You don't have to. You just put in place rules that prevent or significantly limit this. For example, paying members cannot chair a working group or be an editor of a spec.

12. Posted by karl
on Thursday 2010-06-17 at 07:13:28 PST

# first point : stakeholder.

Not sure I understand the logic behind the first point.

Participation in Working Groups depend on the type of work. HTML WG has been opened to wide participation at the request of Apple and Mozilla mainly. That was one of their requirements. See

Some other groups have no issues over process and works quite well. There are often areas of technologies with a lot less stakeholders and different types of companies. We can think for example about VoiceXML, etc. There are different cases.

You are saying you will not participate in the current process of **HTML WG**. What is the part of the HTML WG process which makes your participation unlikely?

# second point : responsibilities in a WG

On the second point, W3C can close right away. :) No Editors, no chairing. Why a company would participate at all inside W3C and pay if it has less rights than any other persons in the group?

Editing a specification costs a lot of money. It means dedicating time. Not many companies and individuals have the luxury of having the time to contribute to a specification. Ideally, everyone in a Working Group should edit a specification. In reality, not many people do. It takes time and knowledge to contribute. It becomes even more difficult when one wants to implement and write the specification at the same time.

I would usually prefer a system for participation in a Working Group, where people get access to more responsibility if they have a record of positive contributions. It can lead to instrumentalization too. For example, a person can behave and contribute until he/she reaches enough power to derail the process. The issue being to define the way we grant participation credentials ala StackOverflow.

It has to be thought and thorougly analyzed for bugs and possibilities of gaming.

# Money

We haven't solved the main issue in all this discussion, which is money for the infrastructure OR deciding to dissolve W3C to have no infrastructure and staff cost. I leave the two options opened.

13. Posted by Vlad Alexander
on Thursday 2010-06-17 at 08:23:57 PST

karl wrote: "You are saying you will not participate in the current process of **HTML WG**. What is the part of the HTML WG process which makes your participation unlikely?"

karl wrote: "We haven't solved the main issue in all this discussion, which is money..."

How can we solve this problem if we cannot see how W3C spends its money? When W3C opens its books for public review, then I believe ideas will start flowing.

Updated on 2010-06-24

karl wrote: "All the issues you are mentioning are well-known. The interesting part of this discussion is not what you identify as issues (at least not alone), but the proposals you could suggest to solve it. With proposals, we can analyze them, test them, or explained what has been tried and failed."

Looks like W3C is not interested in having any public critique or even a discussion about its practices. On the W3C Blog post written by the W3C CEO Jeffrey Jaffe, you (karl) posted a comment with a link back to this article, which is critical of W3C. Your post has now been removed. Is this behaviour of an organization open to change?

Comments are closed for this article.

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