W3C Change: Full Independence

Published 17 years, 8 months past

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.

Comments (23)

  1. Excellent suggestion, I truly hope the W3C will consider this.

  2. Mozilla, Opera and Apple are working on SVG for their browsers, but one company is not.

    They are only interested in world domination using their proprietary technology and won’t be willing to accept less than that.

    With that scenario in mind, how that rogue company fits in your W3C proposition?

    What if powerful members decide to boycott and veto anything that goes against their own interests?

    Are checks and balances in place?

  3. Donation program is already started, see W3C Supporters Programs.

  4. It was nice to meet you in Dallas – finally! I hope to see you in Austin this upcoming March too.

    The main reason why I am commenting is taht you lef tthe “.com” off the Dallas link.

    Feel free to delete this comment, as it has nothing to with with the W3C.

    Best of luck!

    [ Whoops! Fixed. Thanks. -E. ]

  5. Sounds like a great idea!

    Johan: The W3C cannot force Microsoft to play ball, no matter how it’s structured. The only people who can force Microsoft’s hand are browser developers, by building competitive browsers that extend the Web; users, by using them; and Web authors, by creating content that takes advantage of the extensions to give better experiences to those users. OK, so almost everyone can contribute :-).

  6. I like the idea of a foundation vs. a consortium, especially if there were a more coherent means of training aspiring web developers and designers, e.g. certification of school programs for web development. My local community college is heavily into web standards, but many are not.

  7. I think it’s an excellent idea. After experiencing how standardisation work is managed in IETF (being a member of the atompub working group), I feel that consesus based decision-making and an open-to-everyone approach is the definitive way to go.

    The W3C Supporters Program look promising, but isn’t quite what Eric has in mind, as far as I can tell. It doesn’t go far enough to eliminate the member’s fee, it is just in addition to it. So while I appreciate the initiative from W3C to enter this route, I’m not convinced that it’s a new financial model for the consortium. But perhaps by time it will be?

  8. Johan: as Robert said, there’s nothing on this Earth that can force Microsoft or anyone else to the table. In fact, companies might be more likely to walk away from the current W3C, which requires them to pony up a whole lot of money to take part, than from a foundation-modelled W3C. And let’s not pretend that Microsoft is the only company capable of acting in such a fashion, please.

    Karl: that’s great, but how many people do you think have heard about it? I didn’t even know it existed until a W3C staff member mentioned it to me a couple of weeks ago.

    Furthermore, there’s a big PR difference between a nebulous supporter program, which is what you have now, versus a program which is part of a large and extended capital campaign and promoted as such. Right now, you have:

    Through the W3C Supporters Program, we encourage Members and non-Members alike to make general contributions, both financial and of goods such as software and hardware, to help support W3C’s operations.

    …and several dozen “supporters” who are, let’s face it, spammers who paid $1,000 to get a few metric tons of Google juice off of you. Contrast that with:

    Help the W3C realize its goal of full independence. Contibute today to our capital campaign and make a difference in the future of the Web.

    …and not listing the contributors, or only listing the 50 most recent contributors, thus removing the most or all of the impetus to get yourself used as a link farm.

    I’m not saying you should suspend the program. I’m saying it should be made a part of a much larger effort.

  9. Eric: You are perfectly right about the supporter program not being a full donation as you pictured it in your article. I mentionned it for the sake of completion to your article. There is definitely a possibility to be more effective on this side and develop a raising fund program, though it’s not that simple.

    We have also to not forget that W3C is getting money from different sources not only private companies. First Membership is also composed of Organizations and Governments. We get money from European Community and from USA government. There is also specific WAI sponsorship.

    As to find the information, it was on the home page for months, and it has be announced on the home page. You said that spammers have been able to find it, so it seems it was not that obscure. ;)

    As for link farm, I guess that spammers will unfortunately be disappointed, because bot instructions are used to request to not follow the links.

    Your ideas are very interesting and will be certainly explored.

  10. Bright idea! You are right about this. I hope you would not be so tired explaining such a good idea in future:)

  11. This is an excellent idea which would allow the Internet to return to its true roots. The difficult bit is to convince those with a vested interest to hand over; could be possible – after all a number of blue chips are recognising Open Source over their traditional power base.

  12. @Asbjørn Ulsberg: IETF costs a lot of money too in terms of participation if you want to go to Meeting. As for open participation, IETF WGs also gather *professionals* of the domain. There is also a risk for technologies developed at IETF because of RAND and not RF licensing.

    W3C is publishing (should publish) every 3 months a public version of the draft open to comments. In last call, not only comments from the WG, but also from the public has to be answered. There is also a notion which is very important: the W3C Patent Policy to guarantee Royalty Free Specifications. But there are interesting comments in your answers. Some myths about W3C? :) For example, decisions are made on the consensus. The CR phase of a specification is here to gather double implementations on each feature. The thing is that the W3C has evolved a lot in the last 5 years. Since the QA Activity has been created and we are still pushing for having better quality. It takes time to put process in places and changes the mentality of people participating to groups. :)

    Do not forget there are humans participating in WG in the name of entities (companies, organizations, etc.)

    Asbjorn, if you have time, I would be interested by a list of your beliefs about W3C to my personal address. Could you send me a mail with them? I think it would help to clarify things with a post on the QA Weblog for example.

  13. Trackback ::


    W3C Change: Full Independence

    Eric Meyer, in one of his latest posts in the W3C change series, proposes quite a radical change for the W3C:
    full independence. The article is well worth a read, coming from one of the people with the most insight in to W3C operations, and I agree wi…

  14. Asbjørn Ulsberg I have written an article about W3C specifications development replying to some possible questions, but I still welcome more input. The more people express what they think about W3C, they more it will be easier to define what should be modified and what is myth?

    Do not forget that it is an organization which has changed a lot in the last 10 years and specifically in the last 4/5 years in terms of process.

  15. Excellent ideas, I think the W3C would be much stronger and web standards and such would be enhanced if they did something similar to your propositions.

  16. If W3C is after the best standards possible they should be looking for the most competent people possible. The current member model gives the impression that W3C is only for the big guys, not the most competent ones. Allowing experts from anywhere to join like that would certainly raise the probability of getting standards that work. Very good suggestion!

  17. In response to your request for possible shortcomings: it is possible that an independently funded W3C could become too inward-focused and academic-based. It might try too often to reinvent instead of reuse in the area of document structure and management (as some people think with its latest accessibility guidelines), and in the newer areas of interface design and platform APIs (as HTML/Javascript based applications become more and more prevalent). Without skin in the game, companies and other contributors might feel less inclined to work with the W3C, and perhaps work with other organizations instead (for example, perhaps WHATWG continues to draw resources away from a unified effort at the W3C), which could fragment the web community.

    Although I do think independent funding could work out well for the W3C, I’m not sure it is one of the top priorities for reform in itself. It is possible that other beneficial org structure, process, and goal-setting reforms might only be achievable with a different funding model, but I don’t know enough about the W3C to say.

  18. If you invest in India, the interest earned could be much higher and 10 years reduced to maybe 6.

  19. 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…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.

    So you want to make the W3C into a charitable organization? Why not have the 70 staff members donate their time? Also, the W3C did not make the billionaires’ fortunes possible. It was the billionaires’ own work (be it coding or deal making or whatever) that made them into billionaires.

  20. It’s probably a good idea, anything is better than what we have now. In ten years, I am astounded at how little progress has been made. There is really very little difference in the technology I use today than I used in 1996. In the technology field, this is ludicrous.

    We need a W3C that is nimble, can get things done, and oh by the way, can GET THINGS DONE. For too long we have blamed Microsoft and others browser makers for our problems. If the technology moves forward, so will the browsers, so will the community. But it doesn’t, it really hasn’t, and that is maybe the most frustrating thing of all.

    10+ years and we’re still dealing with differences in the platform, using archaic ways to layout and markup and all kinds of other annoying issues.

    Give me an organization that can move us forward, and do it quicker than 10 years.

  21. Obviously an interesting idea, but because it is so radical, I doubt it will ever come close to being implimented. No one likes to change the status quo.

    So let’s take this a step further. We already have the core of new age web developers; Zeldman, Meyer, Clark, etc. What if a new consortium came along. A consortium that moves beyond lecturing and begins to seriously lobby browsers to accept and impliment W3C changes.

    Acid2 has been around for how long? Why does only Safari support it?

    You guys have done the web so much good. Perhaps just a little more before you all take that well deserved rest and hand things off to us, the next generation.

  22. Isaac: in many areas, I don’t think the W3C is in any danger of becoming more academic and inward-looking. Mostly because that would be impossible. Even in general, I don’t think that making the W3C independent would increase the overall odds of that happening.

    Mike: no, I don’t want to make the W3C a charitable organization. If I’d wanted that, I’d have said it. Think of it more like a private university in the U.S.; they have capital campaigns and live off the interest of their endowments (as well as tuition fees), but they are not charities, nor are they for-profit organizations.

    Jono: I very much appreciate your vote of confidence in me and my colleagues, but honestly, it almost sounds like you’re describing the Web Standards Project. They don’t have funding, but lobbying browser makers has been a basic mission for them.

    I don’t think I’d want to set up another consortium. I’d rather improve the W3C to the point that no replacement is needed.

  23. WaSP has done amazing things for the Internet, and they play a vital part in this revolution, but not this part. Their own website states:

    Browser makers are no longer the problem. The problem lies with designers and developers…

    So if the W3C comes up with recommendations, and the WaSP targets people, who is left to push the browsers?

    When XHTML 2.0 comes along, and us developers get to play with and universal hrefs, how long will we have to wait until browsers play along?

    Maybe yet another organisation isn’t the answer, but there is a missing link–browsers are not being pressured enough. We shouldn’t have to decide which browser to use based on how well it renders websites! We should choose based on reliablity, speed, extras and mods.

    But we know all that. How do we go from X to Y?

    With clever people like you.

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