28 Years In, This Iconic Standards Body Is Going Nonprofit
Running an organization within a larger establishment offers access to resources—but you may eventually outgrow it. That’s something the W3C, a key standards body for the World Wide Web, is finding as it transitions from being a university affiliate to traditional nonprofit status.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is one of the most important organizational bodies on the internet, helping to manage the shape of many key technologies used on webpages the world over.
If you’re reading this page—or any other—you’ve been touched by its work.
But here’s a surprise: This critical organization isn’t a traditional nonprofit—but rather a standards body that relies on a “hosted” model, in which the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other established entities manage the organization. It was a model born of the moment, when the internet was in its infancy.
“The speed, the pace of innovation was enormous,“ said Jeff Jaffe, CEO of W3C, in an interview.
But that’s changing: After 28 years of being under the wing of MIT and other research bodies globally, the organization plans to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in early 2023. It’s the biggest organizational change in W3C’s history, reflecting how far W3C—and the web itself—has come.
Why Hosted Made Sense … At First
W3C has a noteworthy pedigree—it was created at MIT, and its founder and director is Tim Berners-Lee, the man who, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, invented the underlying technologies behind the World Wide Web in his role at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
Soon, interest in the internet—particularly web browsers—exploded, leading to a need for quick action amid the “browser wars,” according to Jaffe.
“In 1994, the issue at hand was speed. And there was a sense that not having to negotiate an overall structure, but leaving it with the hosts, would enhance the speed,” said Jaffe, who has led W3C since 2010. “We would be able to build on relationships that the universities had.”
MIT, which had experience building standards bodies, stood out as an option and helped forge the organization around Berners-Lee. But the global nature of the internet made it clear that W3C needed additional hosts, and the group eventually added the European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics (located throughout Europe), Japan’s Keio University, and China’s Beihang University.
For decades, the community-driven W3C was managed in a joint-hosted arrangement as it helped to establish key web technologies, such as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), Extensible Markup Language (XML), and Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG). W3C also previously managed the bedrock Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) but handed publishing of that standard to the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) in 2019.
Why Shifting Makes Sense Now—Despite New Challenges
At the time of its formation, W3C needed organizational agility to keep up with a market in which browsers such as Netscape and Internet Explorer added features without regard for standards to build a competitive edge. (W3C, then and now, is vendor-neutral.)
But the organization is more mature at this point. As a result, it would benefit from a more traditional nonprofit structure, Jaffe said. Additionally, the multihost structure proved increasingly complex.
“We have four different budgets for four different hosts. The hiring decisions are essentially ultimately made by the hosts and the need to be coordinated with the hosts,” Jaffe said. “You want to be a single organization with a single budget, which says we need new staff in some new area; let’s do a global search to find the best person for that job.”
The organization will need to account for some shifts under its new structure.
“I think we will need to do more active fundraising,” Jaffe said. “One of the advantages in being essentially a bunch of departments of large universities is that the budget of a large university is fairly large. We don’t have to worry about cash flow on a day-by-day basis because we’re embedded in a larger organization.”
It may lose access to the resources of its host universities. But by going independent, W3C will gain flexibility.
Looking Ahead for W3C
Once the organizational changes are implemented, it could create opportunities for the standards body to further its goals.
Jaffe said W3C’s value to society was further underlined during the pandemic. Technologies the organization helped to standardize, such as WebAssembly and WebRTC, proved fundamental building blocks for remote work.
“Also very important to us is our society goals,” he said. “How do we make sure that the web is more secure, protects privacy better? How it supports a global audience, different character sets, different glyphs, different ways of expressing oneself. And most importantly, that there is full accessibility for the web across the entire planet.”
Accessibility, a key issue for W3C, takes multiple forms, including increasing the reach of the web to parts of the world that do not have it and ensuring that people with disabilities can access websites. One of W3C’s most important endeavors is the Web Accessibility Initiative.
“If people are trained and accessibility is thought of from the beginning, they’re more likely to get it right, and easier,” Jaffe said.
The W3C’s underlying infrastructure might be changing, but its ambitions remain bold.
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