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Who watches over the Web? The World Wide Web Consortium

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By Andrew Deck

No one owns the Internet. But even the democratized Internet needs people to oversee it. That is the role of the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, an organization that sets standards to ensure the Web runs smoothly and continues to evolve with new technologies.

World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee founded W3C in 1994 shortly after he created the first Web page specifications for Uniform Resource Locators (URLs), Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and HyperText Markup Language (HTML). Berners-Lee wanted to avoid a monopolization of the Web, but without a single Web provider there was the potential for competing tech infrastructure. By setting standards, he hoped to avoid these contradictions.

As W3C CEO Dr. Jeff Jaffe explains it, the Web uses certain vocabulary, such as HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). W3C’s standardized vocabulary ensures that if you create a website or Web app, it will be rendered on all different browsers and devices. In other words, the fact that you can read Power More on Firefox or Chrome or your tablet or your smartphone is no coincidence.

W3C standards are recommendations, not requirements, and standards mean little if no one is using them. But with more than 400 member organizations in the consortium, including universities, nonprofits and major technology companies such as Facebook, Alibaba and Dell, W3C standards are often adopted industrywide.

Bringing these diverse interests together is not without its challenges.

“It is extremely rare that we will not get comments on a proposed standard,” Jaffe said. W3C has faced controversial issues in the past, including its efforts to standardize “Do Not Track” (DNT) features, which monitor user activity on Web browsers.

In 2011, W3C launched its Tracking Protection Working Group to draft a DNT standard. Privacy groups and some Web browser makers, such as Microsoft and Mozilla, pushed for a default “on” for DNT or the option for first-time users to set their own preferences. Online advertising interests pushed back with a request for a default “off.” Internally, there was also disagreement about what it meant for data collection once DNT was activated. Several years later, after delays and extensions, the W3C finally published its final recommendation, but only after the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) pulled out the process.

But W3C sees its duty to be facing opposition within the industry and building consensus, bringing academia and advertising and social media and entertainment together and “facilitating a dialogue in the community.”

With its policy of “vendor neutrality,” however, W3C draws the line at allowing companies to decide or manipulate the standardization process in their favor. Although, member payments help fund W3C, the diverse 400 member organizations ensure no one company is “footing the bill for the consortium,” Jaffe said.

Next-generation standards

Beyond simply reflecting existing best practices in the community, such as formalizing commonly used code with a standardized language, W3C pushes the Web forward by incorporating new technologies into their standards. In 2014, W3C released HTML5, the newest iteration of the programming language, which expanded the potential for multimedia on the Web.

“It was a decade in the making and is considerably more advanced,” Jaffe explained. “Video is now native to the browser, meaning you don’t need extensive plug-ins.”

Roger McNamee, a Silicon Valley investor, put his support behind HTML5, telling The Wall Street Journal that its multimedia tools would provide a diversity of content, “[putting] power back in the hands of creative people.” 

Ultimately, most of the work W3C does, including its HTML5 standard, is behind closed doors (or, behind Web pages, hidden in lines of code).

But W3C’s work is in action every time you browse on your smartphone or watch a video on social media, because of its central role in developing Web technologies.

“Think about what you could do with the Web 25 years ago,” Jaffe said. “You could browse the static Web on a desktop computer with no multimedia and without laptops or smartphones.”

“Now think about what you can do today. The reason the Web is so much more powerful is because we have evolved the underlying language and the underlying tech infrastructure,” he added.

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