This an opinion piece by Tim Cowen, part of the legal team for a Movement for an Open Web.
When Tim Berners-Lee created a system that used hypertext links to retrieve research papers at his research institute in Switzerland in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s he probably never thought his insight would spawn a worldwide commercial network. 30 years later we can see that people’s daily lives have been changed by the internet – or more accurately his World Wide Web.
Heads are now bent over handsets, people at bus stops, in cafes, pubs and park benches; all checking on mail or surfing the internet or checking out their social media feeds. And buying things. By the billion.
What other invention has changed so much? The internal combustion engine? Electricity?
But the World Wide Web is a bit different. It’s not so much a thing as an idea. And the idea only works if the systems underpinning it operate to the same standards. Those standards need to be policed and any change has to be made carefully or the system could fall over.
Like trains on a track the distance between the tracks and wheels need to be standardised so that all carriages can run over them smoothly. For web data trains to carry their messages, packages and presents over different networks those networks need to operate to the same standards to inter- connect and inter- operate. The signaling systems need to interconnect and interoperate and the timetables and ticketing all need to line up.
There could otherwise be a digital train wreck.
To keep things running smoothly the web standards need to be carefully reviewed by someone independent and above the commercial system. Conflicts of interest need to be avoided. As an independent academic with no commercial interest in the outcome, Tim Berners Lee fulfilled that position.
Use of the web boomed in the 1990’s and early 2000’s on the back of its broad adoption on that standardised basis. Applications like email and the widespread availability of browsers on PCs and laptops made a difference: as did the relatively low cost of setting up a website. But it only works by using web standards.
Boosted again by the invention of search and its commercialisation by Google from 2004, and latterly by smart phones from 2008 running iOS and Android, the use of the World Wide Web has just kept on growing. As have Apple and Google who control the iOS and Android systems and through them, the handset markets that depend on them.
Throughout this time the W3C (and ITEF) have defined the web or HTTP family of standards. Everyone knows what HTTP is. After www, it’s at the beginning of every URL. Even if we don’t fully understand how it all works, we notice these strange collections of letters – and website addresses – at the top of the page when using the Web. Consistency has been key to the web’s architecture and its success.
We do know that throughout the past 30 years Tim Berners-Lee has been in charge of the web’s standards. Not the sort of leadership that shouts its name, but a recognised and steady force in the background. One that got a big cheer at the 2012 Olympics. One that matters. We may be finding out how much he matters when he is not there.
As 2022 closes, Tim Berners-Lee (aka TBL) is stepping down from his position as Director of the World Wide Web consortia (aka W3C).
The Director is the geek in chief. Disputes about what goes into HTTP standards and what doesn’t – whether cookies on different domains will work as well as others – what the role of the browser is – and how mobile phones communicate with websites – are currently matters to ultimately be settled by the Director of the W3C. What functions sit in the browser and what exist elsewhere depends on W3C web standards. This is at least how things are supposed to work.
Is this the time he has chosen to exit stage left? Or has he been usurped and displaced? To understand that means looking into a dispute over the past year about digital wallets being included in standards governing browsers.
As we know, mobiles are already the way most people transact and pay their bills. In-App Payments are all bundled in the app stores. This means that Apple and Google both benefit to the tune of as much as 30% from in-app sales. As platform owners they host apps but also have an interest in the payments being made through them. The issue is the subject of litigation between the platforms Epic Games and Spotify, and an EU Commission investigation and now a major 2023 enquiry will take place into it by the CMA in the U.K.
However, that investigation is one step away from the issues facing the “Post TBL” world.
Platforms could, as a technical matter easily embed digital wallets, replace authentication and do away with the need for credit cards. It’s clear that if we all have digital wallets we don’t need the ones stuffed with plastic cards in our pockets.
This is now possible under a new standard that was passed at W3C. 2022 saw a dispute at W3C over whether the browser should contain a digital wallet (see list of objections here Advisory Committee Review of Payment Request API and Payment Method Identifiers (w3.org)
Some believed that allowing browsers to contain digital wallets would put more power in the hands of Apple and Google – and that they already have too much. To cut a long story short the W3C group working on the standard was supported by Google and Apple. Despite the objections from stakeholders, on August 18th, 2022, the Advisory Council tasked with addressing these complaints decided to make no substantive changes to the proposals. The Council published a Recommendation for the standard on September 8th, 2022. It should be noted that the Advisory Council that has no express mandate, is not, as far as we know, composed of those that have no interest in the outcome or employed by those that have an interest in the outcome, such that it may also have a conflict of interest.
If that dispute was about a Technical Advisory Group matter under the formal W3C process it has to go to Tim as the Director, who may then delegate responsibility for processing a formal objection(Processing of Formal Objections | W3C).
However, this dispute didn’t go to the Director.
It went directly to a W3C employee, who appointed an Advisory Committee (see above) to assess, in particular, Criteo’s outstanding Formal Objection. As stated, the Committee’s report did not advise making substantive changes based on Criteo’s complaint. The employee then agreed, on September 6th to overrule the remaining objection, after consulting the TAG group and Advisory Board.
On 8th September 2022 the Advisory Council, delegate, TAG and Advisory Board approved a new standard that enables browsers to become digital wallets. This standard is now being widely implemented.  Escalation to Tim didn’t happen. The browser owners will be happy. Those running competing payment systems not so much. Tim may not even know about it.
Disputes are in principle supposed to be settled by the Director, but TBL appears to have left and will no longer deal with the development of standards.
And for those hoping for a similarly independent and sufficiently non-commercial, TBL-type figure, to takeover at W3C, don’t hold your breath. The appendix to the council decision, rejecting Criteo’s complaint, contains the following statement regarding the future of the W3C:
“In recognition of Tim Berners-Lee’s eventual retirement, the W3C Advisory Board and W3M (W3C Management) have been exploring the possibilities of a Director-free future for the W3C. As part of these explorations, W3M invited the Advisory Board (AB) and the TAG to a third joint session for handling formal objections as a joint Council . . . Following this experiment, the AB, TAG, and W3M, together with the Process CG, will be using this experience and its evaluation to help us chart the future of a Director-free Consortium.”
Not only that, but the organisation is leaving its academic homes in America at MIT, France at ERCIM, Japan at Keio University, and China at Beihang University.
It’s moving to Delaware and becoming a corporation.
Some might find that idea in itself a little chilling. Companies are commercial: the W3C was a public interest organisation pursuing its mission for the good of mankind – right?
Maybe the members of the new corporate entity will have the public interest at heart and stop further changes that benefit the major platforms at the expense of others.
Or maybe the major platforms are now so commercially important to all the business activities of all companies that any company representative can’t be truly independent? Their duty will in the future be to the company and the company’s best interest may be to increase the functions in the browser to the benefit of the two biggest players.
Maybe this has been the plan all along?
If so, maybe it’s time for the WWW to be saved from the W3C?