Standards bodies (like W3C) need more transparency

The World Wide Web Consortium’s lack of transparency when creating industry standards raises questions

Standards bodies (like W3C) need more transparency

Any organization that creates and promotes industry standards should operate in an open and transparent way. Any lack of visibility will cause tremendous doubt and concerns around those standards. 

Case in point: the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). 

A few weeks back, I wrote about one of their most recent standards—Electronic Media Extensions (EME)—which sought to create a standard framework for Digital Right Management (DRM) on the web. When the W3C officially approved this standard, it generated massive backlash from every corner of the technology world. 

Shortly after I wrote that article, the W3C agreed to an interview with me, which I recorded and posted on YouTube. The lack of transparency within the W3C decision-making process became highlighted during that interview—rather profoundly.

The W3C’s membership includes many companies. Three of those companies (Microsoft, Netflix and Google) acted as the official editors of the new EME standard documents.

While we can obviously guess how those three members came down on the question of "should we or shouldn't we make EME a standard,” the truth is we really don't know what their official recommendation was to the W3C.

We (the public) don't know the recommendations of ANY of the W3C member companies. And we have zero way of verifying if the action to approve the EME standard by the W3C board matches what the membership wanted to have happen. 

Secrecy raises suspicions

That sort of secrecy is profoundly dangerous for this kind of organization. 

We're talking about the organization that drives the standards that power the free and open web. The impact of these decisions will be far reaching across the internet. Privacy, security, style, performance and key technologies are all being chosen here. It isn’t the place for secret votes from organizations willing and able to pony up the $60,000-plus fee for a membership seat. 

That sort of secrecy and exclusivity—true or not—immediately causes people to suspect all sorts of negative, super-not-cool things.

After watching one of my recent videos, Coralie Mercier, head of W3C marketing and communications, got ahold of me and stated (among other things) the following: 

"Anyone can become a W3C member by submitting an application and paying a membership fee.

As further information on how decisions are made at W3C, while most of the W3C work is conducted in public and while public feedback is taken into account along the life of each specification, only W3C members take decisions [by voting]." 

That basically makes it a country club—organizationally speaking. 

Would you trust the verdict of secret votes coming out of a country club that you can't be part of because you can't afford it? I mean, if I'm going to let a country club decide things for me, at least let me know how the members vote so I can choose whom I high-five and buy a burger—and those who don’t deserve the high-five or the burger.

This sort of transparency is critical. I've asked for it in this case, but as of this writing, I haven't heard back.

W3C (and all other standards organizations), please, for the love of all that is nerdy and awesome in this world—open up. It'll help your importance and reputation—and we'll get standards we can feel good about. (Or at least bicker about in the normal amount.)

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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