Seminal W3C standards group faces new web challenges 25 years on

The World Wide Web Consortium helps keep the web an open technology but faces difficulties like Google Chrome dominance.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
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World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee

World Wide Web inventor and W3C founder Tim Berners-Lee speaks at the Oktane 2019 conference.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The World Wide Web Consortium has been around for a quarter century. A few years after Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, he also established the W3C to standardize how it works -- a critical foundation to the technology. Open standards mean anyone can build web technology, whether it's a browser or a website.

That openness is in strong contrast to, say, writing apps for iPhone or Android apps or Windows, where a company sets the rules. No single entity holds control over the web.

The W3C celebrated its 25th anniversary Tuesday with a little bit of self-description and self-promotion but also with a reiteration of Berners-Lee's warning about the work needed to keep the web from turning into a cesspool. 

Berners-Lee is trying to establish a "contract for the web" to counteract hate speech and censorship while ensuring everyone gets access. Berners-Lee is stepping beyond the confines of the W3C to try to further some of this vision, helping to found a startup called Inrupt designed to let people reclaim control over their own data from giant corporations like Facebook and Google.


The W3C community extends beyond its membership.


The web and the W3C faces other challenges, too. For one thing, Google's Chrome browser dominates web usage, and few have the budget or ability to keep up. Combined with Google's power in designing very popular online services, that gives the company a lot of control and means that, to some degree, the web is what Google says it is.

The W3C also has had missteps. It abandoned the core standard used to build a web site -- HTML, or Hypertext Markup Language -- and only belatedly tried to reassert control after browser makers banded together to continue its lineage through a separate group, the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG).

That tussle over control was only resolved in May as the W3C agreed to follow the WHATWG's lead through a formal collaboration.

But the W3C, a nonprofit with 50 employees and 450 members, has plenty of work still under its purview. It's tackling subjects like online ads, web game technology, privacy, car technology. The web may not be perfect, but it's moving ahead.

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