Angry Indeed

Published 17 years, 10 months past

In my head, at any rate, it was Jeffrey‘s angry post that kicked off the latest round of posts about consortium contretemps, even though Jeffrey’s post was triggered (at least in part) by a message posted to the fairly obscure public-qa-dev mailing list by Björn Höhrmann, detailing his reasons for leaving the W3C.

A little over a week later, there came a semi-rebuttal by Molly over at the Web Standards Project, where she talked about a new spirit of “opening up to new things”, like adding “at least one classically trained artist and graphic designer” to the CSS Working Group (a role that’s been more or less vacant ever since Jeff Veen left the WG over half a decade ago).

That’s great to hear, but what’s perversely fascinating to me is that in that very same post, Molly herself lists the reasons why Jeffrey’s anger is in no way misplaced:

Am I defending the W3C’s slow-to-move process or its over-bureaucratized administration? Its lack of attention and sensitivity to gender (count the women, go ahead, dare you) and racial diversity, its frightening disregard for the real needs of the workaday Web world? Oh no, nor would I want to.

It’s that last point that lends the greatest support to Jeffrey’s argument:  “…frightening disregard for the real needs of the workaday Web world”.

What more really needs to be said?  It’s the most concise indictment possible that the first part of the W3C’s mission statement, the fragment they put right on their home page, “Leading the Web to Its Full Potential…”, has been betrayed.

Believe me, I’d prefer things to be otherwise.  I’m still a strong believer in standards, and for seven years (1997 – 2004) put my time and energy into supporting and advancing them as a member of the CSS Working Group.  When I left, it was because I didn’t have the time and energy to contribute any more, and rather than continue to be a deadwood listing on the group’s roster, I left.  But most of the reason I couldn’t come up with the time and energy was precisely what Molly articulated.  I no longer believed in the W3C’s ability to do what it promised, and what I wanted.

But the worst part?  None of this is new.  Look back two years, when David Baron and Brendan Eich walked away from a W3C Workshop in disgust.  To a large degree, both men walked away from the W3C itself at that point—and if you’ve spurred David Baron to turn his back on the web’s central standards body, then boyo, you’ve got some deeply serious problems.

Let’s be frank: a whole lot of people who believe passionately in the web’s potential and want to see it advance fought for years to make that happen through the W3C, and finally decided they’d had enough.  One by one, I saw some of the best minds of my generation soured by the W3C; one by one, the embittered generals marched forward, determined to make some sort of progress.

Perhaps my eyes have become a touch too jaundiced over the last decade, but I’m not sure I could disagree more with what Molly claims near the end of her post:

Jeffrey is wrong in his current assessment of the W3C.

If only that were so.

If the folks at the WaSP believe the Good Ship Consortium is beginning to change course, then I’m happy for them, really; I’ll be even more happy if they’re right.  But when the ship is moving so slowly and has drifted so far out to sea, how much relevance can a change of heading really have?

Comments (43)

  1. Indeed, and with the ‘standard argument’ on the verge of winning, with many, many more developers jumping on the bandwagon of standards based development, the W3C is going to have to move quickly to keep up.

    Otherwise WHATWG & Microformats are just the beginning. They were created by people fully aware of the W3C process and wanting to be compatible. What happens when others want to fill a gap left by the W3C, and aren’t so aware of the processes or general technology?

    I still believe the W3C is the best place for web standards to be developed and ‘held’, but it needs (to be able) to do more, and very soon.

  2. Eric,

    The question that keeps spinning in my head is: how does ‘one’ (we — the people using the web) work towards a set of new standards now? You of all people can probably name ten changes to CSS that would make everyone’s life easier if implemented in all major browsers within two years. How to get there?

    I guess the W3C is a kind of United Nations. Slow, political, living on another planet from time to time, but the only alternative there is to keep the conversation going.

    How to progress? I really do not have a clue, but it would be a waste of effort of so many people if the web stays where we are now for a long time to come.

  3. Perhaps it’s just me being a naive young collage student… but I wonder, if the developers that I respect and look up to are so dissatisfied with the quality of the W3C’s work (or lack there of) why don’t they just start over. I mean create a new organization, one that actually listens to the community, and have the leaders be people like Jeffery Zeldman. I think that a good portion of the web community (those that believe in standards anyway) could get behind such an organization.

    Maybe microformats is just the beginning. Maybe we can redo the specifications – make them easy to understand and easier to conform to. I say forget the W3C if it needs to be forgotten and just put new specifications on a new website, with a new validator that actually validates correctly.

    But as I said, maybe it’s just me being naive.

  4. My trackbacks never seem to show up here for some reason.

    I’ve written a a response on my site, Angry: Not: Fair Concerns About the W3C.

    I appreciate this post, Eric!

  5. There’ll be a film about all this one day …

    ‘How the web was lost and won … and lost, or won again!’

    If the actions of the W3C are largely determined by organisations who can afford membership, erm, how difficult would it be to get in the ear of those organisations? Is that the best approach?

    Or, are we just going to start our own consortium, with, like Jeffrey suggests? If that’s the case, what would happen to those caught in the W3C wheel who actually want to do some good? Wouldn’t a transition of that nature do the standards movement more harm than good? If not, what the hell are we waiting for?

    Now, I’ve never assisted with a revolution before, but maybe if I do I’ll get me some screen-time … maybe that’s how we’ll recruit? If so, I call first dibs on Matt Damon starring as me ( — no, wait: George Clooney! Yeah! George!). We’ll get a deal with and Focus Features! Mike‘ll narrate … I can see it now! ;-)

    All right, lead the way generals!

    But seriously, this is un-cool. I feel like the ship’s going down here.

  6. Suppose you have been given control of the W3C. What would you change? What “new specifications” would you want produced?

    I know that the vast majority of people involved in W3C want specifications to be easier to understand. I think by “easier to conform to” you meant “smaller”, because I assume you don’t want to loosen the conformance criteria for specifications and thus allow more interoperability between implementations. Am I right? If so, then smaller, more understandable specifications is a desire that a lot of people share (including most of the W3C), just like less World poverty and unlimited free cookies.

    But they are somewhat abstract goals. I’d like to know what you really want, and what priority you’d assign.

    You’ve mentioned an improved validator. I agree. An updated HTML 4? CSS 3? More test suites? Public flaming of bad/buggy implementations?

    Since this isn’t reality, I’ll also give you limitless budget and unwavering unanimous community support :)

    Just in case you thought otherwise, I’m not being a smartass here. I’d really like to know what people such as yourself want from W3C. The bad news is that I have little influence, and therefore can’t promise to grant any wishes (other than less World poverty and more free cookies).

  7. Suppose you have been given control of the W3C. What would you change? What “new specifications” would you want produced?

    Something like this:

  8. Two years ago the Atom Working group was approached by members of the W3C to do the Atom work inside of the W3C. The rough consensus by the Atom group was not to go to the W3C, but instead move inside the IETF. Two years later and Atom 1.0 is nicely cemented in the syndication space as a well specified, concise and clear standard – and still quite open to the public.

    I was puzzled by the group’s decision not to do the work within the W3C, but looking back, it was the right decision made for the right reasons. The IETF’s approach of rough consensus and working code is ideal for the practically minded web standardista.

    After being part of a W3C working group (WCAG 2.0) for just on two years, I’m jaded by the experience. I was thrilled to join, but that’s been eroded out of me, along with the confidence to contribute.

  9. Like Alex i’m a student and have often wondered about some of the things he mentioned.

    Unfortunatley the answer is not to start a new standards body. That act would be worse than what we have now. I have no doubt that if Meyer, Zeldman, Holzschlag, Tantek and other “celebrity” web developers/designers got together and set up a new body that other designers/developers would follow in droves.

    But standards are not just for developers. They are for the browser makers as well. It would take god like actions to persuade the likes of these people who have, one would presume, invested a lot of time and money in into the W3C and their current software to just ditch it all for something. And what is the point in a new standards if they won’t supported. As broken as people say it is the W3C is here to stay for the forseeable future.

    I read blogs and articles such as this and others that discuss the state of the W3C and its various working groups. Obviously when reading them I have to take into account the possibility of bias.

    This brings about a big issue I have with the W3C (and one that has been highlighted in some of the blog posts mentioned here). The W3C remains a very closed group. There is no way for the likes of myself, a poor student, to view the progress of those within a working group and the progress they are or are not making and therefore come to my opinions on the state of the W3C. I know there are the public lists but I get the feeling they are in the most part totally ignored and there is a wealth of information on the websites of the W3C but those of this requires a PHD in English to understand.

    I’m not sure that opening upworking groups would be a good thing but certainly more transparency of their inner workings is desireably (such as publicly available transcripts of any meetings). At least then if a working group strays of course the users of the public lists could kick up a fuss and act as a lighthouse bring the ship back on course (to borrow Eric’s anaology)

  10. Jon, the proceedings of many of the W3C working groups (including meeting records) are public; e.g. XML core, ws-policy, DAWG/SPARQL. I wonder if the problem is not that W3C is “very closed” but that it’s very big; as you say, there’s so much on the web site that it’s hard to find anything. It’s really tough to keep a community lively as it grows orders of magnitude larger than when it started. It’s not surprising that newer, smaller organizations are more attractive.

  11. If the developers that I respect and look up to are so dissatisfied with the quality of the W3C”s work (or lack there of) why don”t they just start over.

    They have.

    BTW Eric, you might be interested in a telling quote from Chris Lilley that neatly illustrates one of the biggest problems at the W3C.

  12. Suppose you have been given control of the W3C. What would you change? What “new specifications” would you want produced?

    Follow the examples of WHATWG and CSS 2.1:
    * Spend as much energy documenting de facto standards to turn them into real specifications, and refining existing specifications to remove ambiguities etc, as on new specifications
    * Whenever possible add new features that extend existing widely used specifications (e.g. HTML) in upwardly and downwardly compatible ways (i.e. Web Forms 2, not XForms)
    * Stop investing in standards that duplicate functionality already available and widely used on the real Web (e.g. XHTML2, XForms).
    * Wherever cross-browser compatibility exists on the Web, ensure above all else that specifications stay compatible with it
    * Make the use of XML vocabularies in compound documents in Web browsers a primary concern, not bumped off to the CDF to never be solved (or solved in Web-incompatible ways since CDF members don’t care about the previous rule). WGs find it “simpler” to duplicate functionality into their own specs than to rely on other specs. Hence SVG is getting networking APIs and wrapping, styled text. OK for standalone SVG viewers, disaster for browsers.
    * Don’t let WGs violate W3C processes left, right and center so they can get their “product” out the door. SVG, I’m looking at you again.

  13. BTW Eric, if I understand correctly Björn Höhrmann is not leaving the W3C, just the QA area. I would hate to lose his heroic efforts to whip the SVG 1.2 specs into some kind of shape.

  14. Wow — this post has been an education. Eric’s blog, as a former colleague, is the only one of the mainstream web standard leaders that I follow, so these issues with the W3C have kinda crept up on me. Eric’s message has been my second indication that something is wrong. The first was Joe Clark’s To Hell with WCAG 2 on A List Apart. As a practitioner who is trying to do the right thing but doesn’t have the time to understand all the in-s and out-s of the standards and recommendations, I look to bodies like the W3C to set a clear vision for how the web should work well.

    My memories of the W3C — admittedly from about a decade back — was that of a nimble, momentum-rich organization. My basis of comparison were the IETF structure and ISO and its TC 46 Technical Advisory Committee (TAG) designee in the U.S., NISO. Now it seems like NISO (with its emerging registration process) and IETF are stepping up to the “nimble” role (as much as that designation can be used for a standards-making body). Idle thought … I wonder if some of the microformats work could find a bit of gravitas under the NISO registration process….

  15. Interesting debate here…

    The single most important facet of all this debate is that we do NOT want to lose the W3C! We need a single, respected entity that draws some form of industry talent, and which all vendors, developers, and a full range of other entities (ie government, worldly, etc.) can count on and draw on for standards. As slow as some of the stuff has been coming out of the W3C the last 5 years, its even worse coming from the likes of Microsoft and other browser vendors who fail to support the standards anyway!

    We need some kind of fluid organization that draws talent, yet remains openly influenced by vendors. At the same time, we know it must be reliable and timely for developers. It must be willing at the same time, to stand behind some sort of fairly archaic and rigid set of processes and ultimately the recommendations it puts out, and not swayed by every Tom, Dick and Harry out there with an agenda! (Maybe we are talking Communism here…I dont know!). But, I would be careful with how much we are willing to change something thats helped us get from the mess that was HTML 3.2 to XHTML 2.0 and the standards we have today. I know thats because of the hard work of allot of you. Its also because of the respect allot of people have for the W3C. Have we lost that and can we get some of that back without tearing it down? In a web world that increasingly pushed by people with money and an agenda, I vote for of a status quo with the W3C and possibly a revitalization of it without too much of a shake down. MS

  16. Unfortunately a bit of a paradox is in play — forming separate groups outside of the W3C and just striving to document defacto standards may lead us back into the unchecked sprawl of the HTML language created by Netscape and Microsoft, and it affirms the position of various large companies like Microsoft and Sun that standards bodies can be ineffective at evolving the standards at an adequate pace. But with the W3C’s poor track record in evolving the specifications in a timely manner, there may be no other way to proceed.

    Ironically, a company like Microsoft might have a hard time playing a role in contributing to web standards in a new organization outside of the W3C, since it would be hard for it to act in another body without appearing to undermine the existing standards body, and it may facing suspicion for its motives (in his blog, Brian Jones raised the problems of mistrust in the context of why Microsoft did not choose to work with OASIS group on its OpenDocument standard).

  17. Ten years from now, we’ll look back at the sinking of the W3C ship as the best thing to happen to the internet since CSS. It will probably take a few years of chaos, but Web 3.0 (for lack of a better term) is destined to fulfill what the W3C did an incredibly admirable job of trying – but ultimately sort of failing – to do. The great thing about its otherwise sad and untimely demise is that the advancements to come will not have been possible without all the hard work that came before. So cheers to the pioneers of yesterday, today, and especially tomorrow!

  18. I’m by no means an expert on this area, but am I the only one that’s worried about this approach of just going off doing our own thing?

    And if accountability and links with the “workaday” web developers of this world is an issue, how is setting up organisations like WCAG Samurai or any other private group going to help? Seems to me that one of the things that has kept the W3C relevant has been the fact that it’s involved so many corporate vendors, in addition to day-to-day developers. Setting up a range of smaller organisations all deciding unilaterally what constitutes a standard, is directly contradictory to what standards are all about.

    As I say, i’m no expert, and I understand why people are concerned about the lack of movement by the W3C, but i’m not convinced that all going our own way will lead anywhere more positive.

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  21. I agree with the comments above about needing the W3C, any new body cannot fulfil what the W3C could/should.

    There are glimmers of hope, though, it’s worth noting that the Web Forms 2 spec has been submitted to the W3C. Perhaps if Joe Clark’s Samurai can follow a similar path (more difficult I would imagine), things could be put back on track?

  22. I’m puzzled. Anyone that spent any time in the Netscape/Mozilla newsgroups in the short but glorious period between having a usable browser and the arrival of the era of Firefox fanboys & Web 2.0 will recall certain things that happened all the time: disgruntled users and site owners that trialled Netscape 6 or early Mozilla apps were forever complaining that their sites didn’t look right in Gecko. Why was this? For those with short memories here’s a clue: it was because Microsoft had effectively forked the Web and ignored standards. Our usual retort was to point their site at the W3C Validator, tell them to learn some modern coding skills and throw away that copy of FrontPage they were using (because real men use Notepad, CSS and wear hair shirts embroidered with “Tables are for Wimps”).

    Slowly things changed. Firefox appeared, along with the jihadi fanboys, and the wider public started to take note of Gecko. Web standards were being trumpeted by the big media. Blogging software with decent valid output was de rigeur and almost never seen with a Get Firefox graphic. Even Microsft started taking standards seriously. All was well with the world of the web.

    Now we see a bunch of celebrity designer/coders that want all that work thrown away. I’m not a neophobe but change for change’s sake it rarely a good thing. The W3C may be slow but it was the flag we waved to make Gecko acceptable to the wider world. If you want reform then do it from the inside – the subtlety of subversion is more effective than revolution.

    Forking the web, as so well demonstrated by Microsoft in the late 90s, would, quite frankly, be stupid.

    PS This isn’t an anonymous post – there’s no such thing as anonymity on the internet if you have the right paperwork.

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  24. My biggest complaint with the W3C??? The thought that every use of (X)HTML is to develop magazine-style websites that follow document-centric layout conventions. Um….how about the breed of web ‘applications’ that are supposed to replace desktop apps…these do not follow document centric layout – they’re for a totally different purpose. But instead, all current specs keep removing the useful tools for creating these types of applications (for example, what was wrong with being able to set a table/DIV height to 100% and having it fill the viewport without using reams of JS ???????)……

    There’s more going on than news sites out there folks…make it easier on us.

  25. Dean and everyone else: goood points got raised here, and I don’t want you to think I’m ignoring them. I’ve been crazy busy this week—hope to get in some repsonses next week. Maybe with a new post.

  26. I’ve seen parts of this, although I don’t really follow W3C internals very much. I believe in the W3C’s goal (I’ve even had friends call me a “standards nazi” while giving me a job reference), but I also believe they aren’t going about it the way it should be done. I’m one of the regular developers who started with web standards four years ago, before “web 2.0” made it cool.

    The W3C has no real authority over what gets done on the web. This is partly due to internal structure and processes, and partly from being sidelined by the browser vendors during the “browser wars”. Only one vendor is still fighting that war: Microsoft.

    Proof of the lack of authority can be discerned from the consortium’s nomenclature, where, for example, a finished standard is labeled “recommendation”. That right there is all but a license for vendors to do as they please; there’s no weight behind that word. This is exactly what’s been happening since Netscape (mis)conceived the blink tag.

    Many people are fully aware of the W3C’s issues, this is why WHATWG and microformats exist. Fundamentally, the most active and knowledgeable people working on web standards have little or no respect for the W3C.

    The only remedy for this situation, I believe, is for the W3C to be absorbed into another body more capable of producing worthwhile, enforceable standards in a timely manner, namely IEEE or ISO.

    Now, if we could figure out a way to tax the browser vendors based on their non-compliance levels, that would spur them into action.

  27. @Marty

    There are some points about what you are saying in terms of enforcing Web standards, which often means certification. It is not without consequences, I encourage you to read the comments I have written here.

    I also had an experience of working in an Standardization group for a Web topic depending of the ISO about commercial requirements for B2B web sites. Discussions and decisions process completely closed to the public. No comments from the public. Paid participation around the table for each group. etc and more specifically loooooooong time before deliverables, which were not free. It really depends on the group, but ISO has not openess built-in in the process.

    It’s good to see emerging communities but they have also their part of hidden process and exclusion. Each community has a process with more or less rules driving to open discussion to sectarism. It’s very hard to maintain the right balance.

    The good thing with all these discussions right now about W3C. First, they are happening and people raise their concerns. So the process *is* working because people inside the W3C Team are listening to you. And we are acting right now, these days, to change things and improve. Second there are even in the negative comments, a lot of good food for thoughts and suggestions for changing.

    The only thing I’m worried about is timeframe. There are only 70 persons in the W3C staff (including admins, system engineers, Working Groups staff contacts, etc.) and the work at W3C to move on AND the discussion popping here and there on the topic. I hope we will not miss too much of the good stuff.

  28. Very interesting post … and one that illustrates the inevitable problems that most any organization faces when it reaches a certain size.

    I don’t have any answers, but do have a point of fact: David Baron still frequents the CSS WG weekly meetings on a regular basis. He might have walked out of a workshop (I don’t know that history), but still helps the W3C, and as you suggest, is a good and thoughtful man to have around.

  29. Dean Jackson wrote:

    Suppose you have been given control of the W3C. What would you change?

    Well I’d quite like to see CSS 2.1 finished, let alone CSS3. It would also be nice if large member organisations didn’t hold so much sway over the decision making powers of the organisation. Think WCAG 2.0.

  30. Speaking of David Baron, you might appreciate his detailed analysis of problems at the W3C. As usual, David’s thought processes are obvious and highly detailed.

  31. DOH!! URL for David’s analysis:

  32. There’s irony in your statement about being too busy to respond to comments, Eric, when the lead complaint that kick started all of this from Björn Höhrmann was that the HTML working group was too busy to respond to comments from volunteers.

    I read your post, Zeldman’s, Molly’s, others and I have to ask: what do you want? What exactly do you want from the W3C? How is you want it to change? If you no longer think it’s viable, what would you want in its place? None of you are clear in what you want.

    Should we stop, toss W3C out? Go with surival of the fittest tech? Wait until IE7 and Firefox duke it out and then climb over the bodies left over after yet another browser war?

    Hunt around for yet more obscure standards organizations, which we can then pack with people who agree with us? Turn it all over to the tech obsessed.

    Letsee — lets toss JavaScript out and make some form of Python/Ruby hybrid that will be so COOL. Let’s also make sure it’s too hard for the average web page developer: too many of THOSE around.

    Is this what you want?

    I’ve seen the microformat effort as a solution and a replacement, and I can’t believe that any of you are taking this seriously. The microformat effort is an interesting use of technology, but all of it–all of it–is based on the underlying technologies that have coe out of the W3C. That’s like telling a bridge painter, “Hey! You did a great job! You should be an engineer! I’d walk across any bridge you’d build!”

    What do you want?

  33. Shelley: irony, yes, although not much more than that. Blogging isn’t my job, and as much as I’d like to make responding in detail to comments a bigger portion of my life, other things have to take priority. But responding in detail to comments (and especially to objections) on a specification is the job of a Working Group. If the members of a WG don’t have the time do do their job, then they need to step down.

    If you don’t think Jeffrey was clear in what he wanted, you need to read his post again, because what he wants is spelled out. As for what I want, that will have to wait until I have time to write a follow-up post.

    And your bridge analogy wasn’t at all clear to me. Sorry.

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  36. While everyone is complaining about the w3c, I still think they have an important role in this story! What will happen if everyone is following their own standards (whatwg, ietf, w3c, microformats, …)? That’s like going back to the old days; Microsoft will dictate standard A and Mozilla standard B, and there ‘ll probably be some small browsers that have yet an other agenda. Indeed the W3C is moving very slowly, but it is still moving. The quality of the standards isn’t always superb, but there can always be a next version to improve upon the previous version. Even though they have to play catch up sometimes (eg. xmlhttprequest). There is still a lot of work to do in the browser-department before all the existing standards are fully implemented.

    I really don’t believe that decentralisation of standards is a good thing.

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  39. I don’t imagine most folk have any sense of what my 1-line bio means by “compulsively tech_doc” … and that’s ok. “I am not obliged to entertain you.”

    I just went through “Leaving W3C QA” again, just for the sheer pleasure of it. Lovely … re-vitalizes my faith in human nature, it does. I definitely owe Bjoern a tankard of his favorite.

    Who, who, who took note of the effort evidenced in that document? A DavidB would, a BrendanE would, a Hixie would … like you would … but that’s about it. Know what? I’ll bet TimbBL would, too.

    But there’s something else operating here too: my gawd, maybe you don’t realize the awe you inspire … “Box Model Hack” and such. You and tantek? Guys like you are what inspired me (past tense, note) to keep sloggin’. (So on the day I set up and read through a 250 page technical document and produce with a long list of quibbles large and small. *shrug* Nobody much cares? Fine. But I know that I’ve guarded your back. Now’days you got bigger fish to fry? *shrug* Hey, no blame. But: I quit. Past tense. Done deal … a long while back.)

    Copying texts into illuminated tomes was humble work. Such is it with tech_docs.

    “Only notice when the well is dry.” Yaaa, well I’ been in “camel” mode for a lotta years.

  40. Browsing links to and from this blog today – quite an education! Especially Eric’s comments, surprising (but convincing) from such a well-known expert!

    I believe in standards to a degree. Web pages have to communicate first, then maybe put on a show second. But then, what is, being too “nitpicky”? Is it too nitpicky to say “different than” but *not* to nitpicky to say “you is”? And who’s the source of such a standard: the OED, or Webster’s?

    If we get rid of the W3, then each browser is free to go its own way, and my web page isn’t guaranteed to show up on cousin Bill’s browser in Michigan: what a shame!

    I want to be able to read Eric’s lessons on CSS and maybe even not have to read the parts he wrote on CSS hacks and his notes about how IE misinterprets the box model.

    As far as standards, I think the W3 has an at least titular role (somewhat recognized by vendors) as does the UN (somewhat recognized by nations).

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    Learning the World » To Hell with Joe Clark

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  42. The proceedings of many of the W3C working groups (including meeting records) are public; e.g. XML core, ws-policy, DAWG/SPARQL. I wonder if the problem is not that W3C is “very closed” but that it”s very big; as you say, there”s so much on the web site that it”s hard to find anything.

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