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W3C and secrecy (was Re: Acrobat PDF & Accessibility)

From: Charles F. Munat <chas@munat.com>
Date: Fri, 21 Dec 2001 23:38:42 -0800
Message-ID: <3C243882.70200@munat.com>
To: w3c-wai-ig@w3.org

George Kerscher wrote:

 > The World Wide Web *Consortium* W3C does not develop in
 > secret. It is composed of member companies and organizations who all
 > collectively contribute to the development of specifications. This is
 > accomplished by clearly defined working group activities that are
 > staffed by its membership (all those companies and organizations) who
 > develop the specifications. The importance of having working
 > implementations before a specification is approved has been a welcome
 > change in the development in the W3C over the last few years.

Sadly, George, this isn't quite true. The W3C does a lot of things in
secret. That all *members* can see them does not make them "open."

First, as you point out, the W3C is a *consortium*. In practice, what
this means is that only deep-pocket corporations need apply. It's been
years, but last I checked membership was $50,000 a year. Oh, if you were
a "small" company (annual revenues less than $50 million, I think), you
could get away with $5000 per year, but how many individuals or small
businesses can afford that?

I wrote to Tim Berners-Lee and to another member of the Board of
Directors several years ago to ask about individual memberships. Tim
didn't bother to reply (no surprise), but the board member did. He told
me that they had considered individual memberships, but that the big
corporate members didn't want to dilute their power, and that the W3C
was dependent on the big corporations for support, so there would be no
individual memberships. Frankly, I was shocked by his honesty.

I seem to remember a comment from Tim to the effect that the Web was a
boon to democracy, and indeed it can be. But the W3C is anything but
democratic. More of an oligarchy. And like any good oligarchy, only the
elite get full access.

It doesn't have to be this way. The W3C could be open to anyone with an
interest. Individual members could pay $50 a year. That would be low
enough to let virtually anyone participate, but high enough to keep out
drive-by posters. Better still would be a sliding scale. That would help
students, people with disabilities (whose incomes tend to be low), and
even the homeless (who could access the discussion via library 
terminals). Not to mention those from poorer nations. This is the *World 
Wide* Web, after all.

But that would seriously dilute the power of companies like Adobe,
Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, etc. to have their way. Big corporations are
anti-democratic by nature. The last thing they want is a level playing

I think what bothers me most about the W3C is that it *pretends* to be
democratic. And in the process, it accepts a huge amount of volunteer
work from people who obviously aren't good enough to be granted membership.

The Internet was built with public monies: our money. But it is now
being appropriated for private profit. This is nothing new. Consider the
nuclear power industry. Who paid for all that research? You and me. Who
makes the profits? Certainly not us. Private profits, subsidized costs. 
It is the same in the drug industry, the computer industry, the defense 
industry, etc. What do you think NASA really does? Funnels public money 
to big corporations.

The W3C works the same way, accepting "money" from us (in the form of
volunteered time and effort) and passing the benefits on to the
corporations. And if anyone doubts that this is the intention, just take
a look at the recent efforts of the W3C, negotiated entirely in secret,
to allow IP claims on its standards. A great many people contribute
freely to a standard, but then some member company says that their part
of the contribution is IP. Now they get to charge royalties on their
part. Where are our royalties? And isn't this a very clever way to push
out those pesky open source folks?

To anyone who doubts that the Web (and indeed the Internet) is rapidly
being taken over by private power, I recommend Lawrence Lessig's recent
book, The Future of Ideas.

Finally, consider that even in the W3C's membership policies, there is a
double standard. Corporations are first-class members:

"The benefits of membership participation flow downward to subsidiaries
of Members."

Membership organizations are not:

"Membership is open to other 'membership organizations,' but in this
case the benefits of W3C membership generally only extend to the staff
and officers of those organizations, and do not flow through to their
own members."

In other words, even if we banded together and formed a non-profit, when
we joined the W3C, only our staff and officers would benefit.

Since I first visited this page --


-- they've made some changes. I note that individuals may now join as
affiliate members. At $5000 per year, that is. I'm sure they get lots of
applications at that low price!

The job of the W3C is not to act as a standards organization, nor to 
promote democracy (or accessibility), but to make the Web safe for big 
corporations. Its "Director" has final say on everything (so much for 
democracy) and everything W3 is owned by MIT (a private organization).

Charles F. Munat
Seattle, Washington
Received on Sunday, 23 December 2001 07:50:46 UTC

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