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World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)

WORLD WIDE WEB CONSORTIUM (W3C)

While not a governing body, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was the leading organization devoted to setting a path for the Web's development, settling disputes related to emerging technologies and practices, and implementing standards that companies, organizations, governments, and individuals overwhelmingly adopt. As such, the W3C carries enormous power, even if it chooses to exercise its power in a soft-spoken manner.

The W3C was founded in 1994 by Tim Berners-Lee, the developer of the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee launched the W3C at MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science in collaboration with the Geneva-based Centre Europen de Recherche Nucleaire (European Laboratory for Particle Physics, or CERN), where Berners-Lee had first developed the Web. At the time, the leading organization overseeing the development of the Internet was the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). One of Berners-Lee's ambitions was to grow an organization that would be more nimble and effective than the IETF. The IETF, however, was focused on the Internet itself, and when the Web came along in the early 1990s it was unprepared for the new medium. As a result, the IETF and the W3C jointly allocated to the IETF only smaller-scale issues involving the World Wide Web, such as the specifications for the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). Thus, the IETF focuses on lower-level technical problems, while the W3C handles a broader range of issues more closely guiding the Web's development.

Over 500 organizations count themselves as members of the World Wide Web Consortium and work on its various task forces. Centered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and with research centers in France and Japan, the W3C explains its work more in terms of a research and development organization rather than a standards body. The W3C's work extends beyond devising standards to the development of actual technologies, from software to tools to specifications. The World Wide Web Consortium was the leading developer of a number of technical specifications, including such central developments as Extensible Markup Language (XML), which was poised to become a critical part of the e-commerce architecture.

The W3C's activities are organized into five categories: the Architecture Domain, which focuses on the technologies of the Web's basic structure; the Document Formats Domain, which is devoted to the development of technical formats and languages for the presentation of information on the Web; the Interaction Domain, which promotes the Web's capabilities for interaction with users; the Technology and Society Domain, which considers the Web's place in the context of the broader society and develops standards and technologies to address particular social and legal issues; and the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which is devoted to bringing Web access to all people, regardless of particular disabilities.

A major focus of the W3C's activities through the 1990s and early 2000s was the mediation of technical disputes so as to stave off proprietary battles that could lead to the privatization of the Web or the closing off of segments of the Web behind a wall of commercial interests. The organization's goal in this area was to keep the Web a seamless whole freely accessible to all. The development of specifications at the W3C, then, aims to prevent the fragmentation of the Web. Berners-Lee, for instance, worries that without mediated guidance, companies following the commercial incentive to readjust standards to their own advantage could end up causing incompatibility between media-say, between Web televisions and Web browsers-and thereby splinter the Web.

Maintaining the decentralized nature of the Web is another primary area of the W3C's concern, and among the reasons the W3C insists it isn't a governing body. The Web, according to the W3C, is emblematic of the modern distributed system. In addition to avoiding the bottlenecks and other technical difficulties involved in centralizing the Web, the W3C opposes the principle that the Web be controlled by any central governing body, seeing in such a prospect a means whereby the Web's freedom and universality could be compromised. The W3C's role as mediator highlights its aim of keeping the Web a medium that develops by consensus rather than by fiat.

Crucially, then, the W3C is explicitly vendor and market neutral. To ensure this neutrality, the organization invites the public to comment on specifications through their development process and afterwards, and works to build consensus between competing vendors and markets. In the late 1990s, the W3C mediated some of the disputes between Netscape and Microsoft and was successful in providing a forum through which the companies could reach a common platform and avoid fragmenting the Web with competing standards.

FURTHER READING:

Anthes, Gary H. "W3C's World Wide Power." Computerworld, September 6, 1999.

"The World Wide Web Consortium." Cambridge, MA: The World Wide Web Consortium, 2001. Available from www.w3.org/.

SEE ALSO: Berners-Lee, Tim

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