When you’re part of the group that runs the World Wide Web, it can be daunting to explain to your mother what you’ve done with your day. Take Paul Trevithick, chief technology officer for Bitstream, a Cambridge-based company that designs and sells computerized type fonts. Trevithick was in his hometown of San Jose for a meeting of the World Wide Web Consortium’s font group not too long ago, and after one day’s sessions he decided to visit his mother. “What did you do today, dear?” she asked.
“Well,” Trevithick responded, “we tried to define the future of how information will be published in any medium 10 years from now.”
That’s certainly a grand goal-and it’s business as usual for the World Wide Web Consortium. The consortium, known to insiders as W3C, has at last count 275 member organizations, including companies, nonprofit organizations, industry groups and government agencies from all over the world. This power-packed assemblage is the closest thing the famously decentralized Web has to a governing body. More than the U.S. government, whose funding created the Internet, and more than the telephone companies whose wires and fibers carry the Net’s digital traffic, it is the W3C that will largely determine the Web’s structure in the 21st century.
For a group with this much clout, W3C isn’t well known. Nor does it court fame. Its meetings are closed to outsiders. Although the consortium, based at MIT, has brought some order to the unruly thickets of the Web, it has plenty of critics who say the group has become a significant maker of public policy-and ought to start acting like one. They argue that the W3C should open its membership and meetings to broader, more democratic participation.
In addition, they say, the organization’s decisions and structure essentially reflect the personality of one man: Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web in the early 1990s while working at CERN, the European high-energy physics lab. Almost everyone involved with the Web has tremendous respect for Berners-Lee, now at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS). But the consortium’s critics say that a body that has this much effect on a technology that affects us all can’t be the province of any one person. To test these claims and take our readers behind the scenes, Technology Review talked to the major players in the consortium and many of the group’s most thoughtful critics.