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Archive: 25 September 2006

W3C Change: Full Independence

Apologies for the break in posting just as I was getting to the best part of the W3C Change series, but back-to-back trips to Seattle and Dallas came up before I could finish writing up my thoughts.  This one was, for all the simplicity of the content, the hardest one to write, because I kept revising it to try to be more clear about what I’m proposing and how it would be an improvement.  I could keep revising ’til the end of forever, so I’m just going to take what I have now and go with it.

My third recommendation is simply this: Transform the W3C from a member-funded organization to a financially independent entity.

In order to accomplish this, the W3C would need to embark on a major capital campaign, similar to the efforts mounted by major non-profit organizations and American private universities.  The campaign parameters that come to mind are a ten-year campaign whose goal is to build an endowment of $200 million.  From the interest on this endowment—which at a relatively modest 5% return would be $10 million annually—the W3C could fund its activities.

(Note: I do not have access to the budget of the W3C, but with approximately 70 staff members at an average total cost of $125,000 per year in salary, benefits, and travel expenses, the staffing cost would be $8.75 million.  If I am lowballing the budget, then obviously the capital campaign’s goal would have to be raised.  The general approach remains the same.)

As the campaign progressed, the membership dues would be reduced across the board in proportion to the progress of the campaign.  Once the campaign reached its end and the full endowment had been acquired, the dues would fall to zero and the membership model would be dismantled.

You might wonder where the blinking font the W3C could get that kind of money, even over the course of a decade.  Well, 20 Internet billionaires could each donate $10 million in thanks for the W3C making their fortunes possible, and there you go.  Even if that doesn’t happen, there are many foundations whose goal is to foster better technology and communications, and who might be persuaded to contribute.  Government grants could help.  And, of course, a supporter campaign like that run by the EFF would allow individual developers to add their support.

Frankly, I don’t think the problem would be finding the money, especially over a ten-year period.  By hiring an experienced fund-raiser, I think the funds could be raised a good deal more quickly.  I think this would be especially true if Sir Tim publicly put his weight behind the effort, and made personal appeals to potential major donors.

But why would I even suggest such a thing?

  1. The current membership model creates an apparent wall between the W3C and the rest of us.  Because it costs a minimum of $15,000 over three years to become a W3C Member, individuals will rarely, if ever, be able to justify membership.  The same is true of web design and development shops.

    For primarily this reason, there is the belief that non-paying members of the community cannot join Working Groups, and that the WGs are forever closed to the rest of the world.  This is not really true, since any Working Group can ask people in the community to become Invited Experts.  These are Working Group members who don’t have to pay to get in, and aren’t necessarily held to the same contribution standards as Member representatives.  (Not that contribution standards are always upheld for them either, as I observed in an earlier post.)

    So now imagine a W3C where there are no Members.  That means that every Working Group is comprised entirely of Invited Experts (except for any W3C staff members who might join).  This bridges the perceived gap, and puts community members on a more equal footing with those who would currently be Member representatives.  I’m not saying there wouldn’t be company representatives at all.  The CSS WG is going to have representatives from Microsoft, Mozilla, Apple, and so on.  The alternative is for them to not participate, and thus be at the mercy of what happens in their absence.

    Since someone’s going to bring it up, I’ll address the Microsoft question.  You might think that Microsoft could decide to both abandon, say, the CSS WG and ignore what it produces.  (Anyone could do this, but Microsoft is going to be the company accused of hypothetically plotting such a thing.)  That could well be.  But wouldn’t Microsoft departing the CSS WG be a large red flag that something’s seriously wrong, and that it needs to be addressed before worrying about exactly how the layout module is written?

    Of course, some other player could do this as easily as Microsoft.  The point is really that, if a major player in the space with which the WG is concerned departs that WG, then it identifies a situation that needs to be addressed.  The Member model actually goes some small way toward concealing that, because the dues paid create a certain impetus to put someone on a WG, even if there’s no serious interest.

    The flip side of this is the question, which I’ve heard more than once from people when I talk about this idea, “How would a WG force the players to the table?”  For example, how could a new browser-technology WG force the browser makers to join the group?

    The question itself betrays a fallacious assumption: that players should be forced to work together.  If you propose to form a WG that doesn’t interest one or more of the major players in the field, then the WG may well be flawed from the start.  The point of a WG is to produce an interoperable standard.  If a WG just goes off and does something without buy-in from players, and there’s never an implementation, then the whole effort was wasted.  On the other hand, a specification that was produced with the involvement of all the major players stands a much better chance of being implemented, and thus a much better chance of being used and appreciated by the community.

    The flip side of that flip side is the question, “What if a WG refuses to admit a player in the field?”  In other words, what if the CSS WG barred Microsoft from having a representative on the WG?  Again, that would be an enormous red flag that something had gone awry.  Any WG that refused to involve an important player in their field would need to be scrutinized, and probably reformatted.

    All this does raise the spectre of replacing a centralized model with a consensus model.  Which is just fine with me, for all the reasons I just mentioned.

  2. There is the perception—largely untrue, but no less persistent—that the W3C is controlled by those who fund it.

    It’s actually been my experience that there’s an inverse correlation between the amount of money a company puts into the W3C and the frequency with which their representatives get their way.  During my time in the CSS WG, the Microsoft people faced more resistance and more grief from the rest of the WG than the Netscape reps ever dreamed of getting.  CSS-like things which IE/Win had done faced a serious uphill battle to be incorporated in the specification, even when they were good ideas.  I don’t know how to explain this odd variance from the usual effect of money, but it was there.  Maybe in other WGs, the situation is different, although I kind of doubt it.

    But as I say, the perception is persistent.  A financially independent W3C would remove that perception.  I wouldn’t propose this kind of funding-model change solely to clear up some erroneous perceptions, but it’s an undeniably positive side effect.

  3. Full financial independence allows the W3C to do things that its dues-paying Members likely wouldn’t permit.

    Now what could I be talking about, since I just claimed that dues money doesn’t drive what the W3C does, except in inverse ways?  What I’m talking about is things like launching a program to pay Invited Experts a small stipend.  Currently, Invited Experts receive no financial support, whereas Member representatives are supported by their employers while devoting some of their time to the W3C.  I tried to imagine a world where the dues-paying Members of the W3C approved the idea of paying Experts, and although I managed to do so, it turned out to be entirely populated by talking kawaii unicorns who get joyfully teary about their perpetually rainbow-filled skies and giggle a lot.

    Here’s another W3C effort which probably could never get funded under the current model:  a university scholarship for students who plan to study the web, or uses of the web.  They might fund independent research on the effects of the web in developing countries, or what users want, or any number of other things.  Or hey, how about putting enough money into the WWW conference series that people who present papers are given a complimentary registration?  (I know—radical!)

    These things couldn’t happen if the W3C’s endowment generated only enough interest to cover staffing and overhead, but the endowment doesn’t have to be limited to just that much.  A second capital campaign, or a simple continuation of the first one, could increase the endowment, thus giving the W3C (potentially) quite a bit of discretionary funding.  It would give them the opportunity to spend money on efforts that advance their core mission (“To lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing protocols and guidelines that ensure long-term growth for the Web”).

There are various knock-on effects that arise from those points, of course, but I’ve gone on long enough.

As many of you have noticed, I’m effectively proposing that the W3C become a foundation instead of a consortium, albeit a foundation whose primary mission is to act as a consortium would.  I’ve avoided using terms like “non-profit” and “not-for-profit” because they might imply specific things which I don’t fully intend in terms of tax law, or whatever, but I do think of it as a generically non-profit institution; that is, one that does not strive to create a profit, except as can be invested into the endowment.

I’ve tried to explain why I believe this is a good idea, but in the end, I think the most fundamental reason is that one I can’t explain:  it just feels like the right thing to do.  It’s like I can perceive a shape without grasping all its details, but the overall shape looks right, looks better.

I fully expect that some will recoil from this idea, convinced that a foundation is a poor substitute for a consortium.  Obviously, I disagree.  I think the W3C’s future could be made much more stable with this approach, especially in financial terms.  I also believe, as I said before, that it would be no less of a force for the advancement of the web.  In fact, I think it would be a much stronger force, and have a greater positive effect, over the long term.

It is not a small undertaking, but it is an important and worthwhile effort, and I hope it is one the W3C considers seriously.

September 2006
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