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Cybersecurity & Standards

Changing Governance at W3C

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) — the body that designs and sets standards for the underlying protocols of the web — is going through some welcome but incomplete governance changes. While the W3C began as a legal agreement between universities, it is now transitioning to a new legal entity called W3C Inc. with a new board of directors. 

We at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) are grateful to this group of experts — many of whom are long-time participants in internet standard-setting — for volunteering their time in managing the organization. The W3C needs to be a true public interest organization, though, and even with the recent changes, governance and participation will be too industry-dominated. Increased participation by governments and civil society organizations — groups that directly advocate for the public and their elected representatives — are necessary to make this a true multistakeholder group. 

The standard-setting process is also changing, and will go from being directed by a single individual to being led by the community of participants. There, again, more public interest participation is needed, particularly from beyond English-speakers in the global North. Only then can W3C realize the vision of a web for all humanity, designed for the good of its users.

Governance of W3C Inc.

The W3C is made up of member organizations — primarily companies in the tech field, but also some universities, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations including CDT. W3C also directly employs a staff who help to facilitate the standard-setting process for those members. For the past quarter century, W3C as an organizational matter was just a legal agreement of universities in different countries, currently MIT (in the U.S.), ERCIM (France), Keio (Japan) and Beihang (China). 

But, in order to have more stable, unified management, that agreement of four universities is now being transferred to a dedicated organization, W3C Inc. After an election by the membership last month, W3C Inc. has a Board of Directors, who met for the first time this week. The transition is urgent due to internal deadlines, and may be a logistical, financial, and bureaucratic challenge. 

W3C needs to be truly representative

As the Board of Directors sets the organization’s strategy for investing in web standards work, its top priority should be maintaining the continued operation and relevance of W3C and the open process for developing the underlying protocols of the web. 

Diversity among this governance group is essential. While the elected directors are diverse across some dimensions (employed by some large companies and some small ones; men and women; people from different continents), this is not yet a multistakeholder group in the sense of representing all the different stakeholder sectors. The for-profit private sector is well-represented, and the host academic institutions will have voting seats on the board. Individuals primarily affiliated with governments and civil society organizations, though, are currently absent.

Those gaps are in large part a symptom of a longer-term, broader imbalance in participation at W3C, Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and other internet standard-setting bodies. The current Board of Directors should seek out more diversity — including missing areas of expertise, and people affiliated with sectors beyond industry and academia — in additional directors they appoint. W3C also should invest in outreach, so that more of civil society is more deeply involved and more able to take on organizational governance. To fulfill the long-term potential of the web for people around the world, W3C Inc. should become a public interest non-profit organization that is diverse and multistakeholder through its governance and its membership.

Standard-setting must be community-led and inclusive

At the same time that we welcome W3C Inc., we also welcome a community-led (sometimes called “Director-free”) process. Historically, W3C’s standard-setting process depended on the judgment of the founding Director, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who approved new work items, provided architectural guidance, and was the ultimate voice to settle any objections where participants could not come to consensus.  Berners-Lee has set out a principled, practical approach of one web for everyone. And this process must now modernize, become a participant-led alternative, and codify the public interest in a set of processes comprising decisions previously delegated to Berners-Lee. The legitimacy and efficacy of W3C standards depends on a genuine multistakeholder consensus process.

In order to make that possible, participants throughout the technical community will need to take a more active role in overseeing procedural decisions and ensuring that web standards benefit the public interest. Multistakeholder governance models, like what we hope to see in internet governance, depend on the ongoing engagement of a diversity of stakeholders. CDT will expand our efforts to review not just the privacy and human rights impacts of individual standards, but also the creation of new groups and work items to ensure they align with a public interest mission.

To ensure that the web and the internet are directed towards the public’s needs, and not dominated by corporate interests from the wealthiest nations, sustained and sustainable engagement from more of civil society is necessary. Web and internet standards processes must become more inclusive: In order to be global organizations, standard-setting bodies need to provide infrastructure for first-class participation by those who cannot attend meetings in person and those who primarily speak languages other than English. Ongoing sources of funding are necessary to pay for the deep engagement of technical experts within civil society organizations that don’t have the same budgets as tech firms. Finally, standards organizations must provide a welcoming environment to newcomers and to groups historically not well-represented in technical communities, by taking actions including funding participation from underrepresented groups and enforcing meaningful codes of conduct.

Changes in institutional governance and process at W3C are useful steps towards a resilient and community-led organization, but further steps are needed to increase the diversity of stakeholders who govern W3C and participate in web standards. There is much work to be done, by the new W3C Inc. and by the wider community, to make standard-setting inclusive and to fulfill the potential of the web.