The W3C Is At A Crossroads For The Web And Itself, With MIT Exiting As Admin And Disarray On All Fronts

Fatima Fokina
The problem is too important not to be fixed, so nobody’s panicking and everybody expects things to work out. But there is no actual solution in sight.

The problem in this case is not the work being done by the W3C, but with the W3C itself.

The Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), the main technical standards developer of the internet (HTML and CSS, the code underlying the web, are two such W3C standards), will lose longtime university partner MIT as administrator and US host organization at the end of this year.

The organization has other academic administrators: Keio University in Japan, China’s Beihang University and the University of Southampton as the UK and Ireland host. But MIT has been closely associated with the W3C since its development and is the organization’s primary financial safety net.

Many executives and members are advocating for a new organizational structure for the W3C as a US-based non-profit funded by members and board members – a familiar structure for industry orgs. But there is no immediate solution and MIT won’t renew its host contract at the end of the year.

The clock is ticking.

This major organizational overhaul to the W3C is also happening at a time of unprecedented activity and change for the internet. Will the web support crypto and Web3 industry proposals? How will the web support advertising? What should be the baseline web browser security standards?

And, to top it off, there’s a bottleneck of proposals that are stymied because the W3C director, Tim Berners-Lee, is not as active with the group and, frankly, doesn’t seem to support the direction of many new W3C working groups.

The executive steering committee, which needs to sign off all updates, didn’t meet at all in 2020 and hasn’t been actively involved in working group proposals since then either, according to sources. Members and advisory board reps pushed for an interim board that could approve changes if the steering committee is disengaged. But that proposal was rejected by the steering committee.

The background

The necessary context here is that there is no single legal entity that is the W3C. Partner universities pay staff, collect dues and manage accounts in their host territory. The group itself is more of a shell.

Berners-Lee, as director, has been the group’s “arbiter of consensus,” said W3C strategy lead and counsel Wendy Seltzer. Proposals are pushed up through loosely affiliated working groups. Once ideas have gained adoption and consensus, Berners-Lee gives the stamp of standardization.

The “arbiter of consensus” is not an informal role, however. Proposals must be stamped by Berners-Lee to move forward.

“The governance issue with MIT is less important for the W3C than the organization realizing that having a philosopher-king, as it were, is not a feasible situation,” said Alex Cone, former VP of privacy and data protection at the IAB Tech Lab, who at the time was the Tech Lab’s rep on the W3C advisory committee.

The W3C is trying to recreate itself as a non-profit with a “director-free process,” Seltzer said. An advisory board of member companies and practitioners would likely be the official arbiter of consensus.

She said there is a filing for a Delaware-based W3C non-profit. Now they actually have to go make it.

The W3C transformation plan

Without a new structure and financial plan in place for 2023, why haven’t W3C members panicked about what looks like a potential looming catastrophe? Despite W3C executives being hard at work on a potential solution for more than the past year, they haven’t made much progress.

Relying on other academic hosts is a dead end. The other hosts can’t just take the slack from MIT. Beihang would be best-suited to handle the full hosting and financial backing, but it would take years to even set up the organization it would need. And China has particular rules limiting foreign staff by the university, Léonie Watson, an advisory board member and working group chair, told members at a meeting of the Technical Architecture Group (TAG) in February, according to the group’s minutes.

For one thing, the work is simply too important to evaporate, said Don Marti, CafeMedia’s VP of ecosystem innovation and rep to the W3C.

“If the W3C didn’t exist, the big member companies would need to reinvent it immediately,” he said.

W3C’s Seltzer said that while MIT won’t renew as host, the university also won’t “leave us in the lurch.” If there’s a short bridge period before a new organization is up and running, she said MIT is working with the group and doesn’t want to see it stumble.

The W3C won’t turn into a pumpkin at midnight on January 1, 2023.

Non-profit for the profiteers?

There is an easy, obvious solution staring the W3C in the face, if it can stomach the truth.

Some of the biggest companies in the world – browser operators like Apple, Google and Microsoft – derive the most value from the work going on in the W3C. The W3C is also home to important advertising and attribution products being developed by the Mozilla and Facebook.

Those huge companies could and would financially back the group. They would also become board members, and having big tech financing and board reps might change the mentality or even just the image of the W3C.

“I don’t think anybody involved in the W3C would be comfortable having it turn into a large vendor-dominated organization,” Marti said. Other groups like the IAB have gone down that route. It may make sense in those cases. But the W3C’s stated mission is to represent web users as the primary constituent, not technology companies, he said.

The W3C has been dominated by browser operators for so long, people are conditioned to expect it to represent the browser industry, like other orgs that do advocate for particular stakeholders within digital media, said James Rosewell, CEO and co-founder of the ad tech services company 51 Degrees, and a bit of a bomb thrower within the W3C. “But it isn’t meant to be that way.”

Plus, the browser operators who would need to join forces to support the W3C aren’t actually so interested in finding consensus among themselves. Everyone agrees on basics like HTML – sites should load and act the same across browsers. But Google’s ideas like Topics, a cohort-based way of serving ads, conflict with a browser like Brave, with a proprietary built-in ad system that does a similar function, Cone said. Apple and Mozilla don’t want standardized privacy, because their marketing pitch is more and more focused on differentiated privacy standards.

The W3C likely will settle on some form of tech industry backing as a non-profit, which would require larger companies primarily financing the group and some form of advisory council. Additional processes would need to be in place to ensure the bulk of the member companies have a say as well, not to mention the W3C’s actual mandate to represent web users.

“I think there are a many pragmatic people at the W3C who are saying, ‘We can surmount this. Other organizations surmount this,’” according to Cone.

The W3C has seen a large influx of new members from ad tech and online publishing in the past couple years, Seltzer said.

But that’s been the way of the web, she said. Older constituents fade out; Companies move in to seize new opportunities. “And consensus is always challenge.”

Don’t hold your breath for swift W3C action, but you can hold out hope for progress.

“We currently engage in a ‘triumph of hope over experience,’” said Dave Raggett, who leads the W3C data standards activity, at the TAG working group meeting in February.

It has been a frustrating year for the advisory board, which he said can only advise and is powererless to enact change in the org. “Those who could make decisions seem unwilling.”

The W3C Is At A Crossroads For The Web And Itself, With MIT Exiting As Admin And Disarray On All Fronts

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