W3C's openness hypocrisy: Public barred from 'public' conference

The World Wide Web Consortium held a conference in DC on Monday that it described as: "Conversations and results are public." Which is why it's a bit hypocritical to bar reporters from covering the event.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read

The World Wide Web Consortium, which purports to be an "open forum" for standards discussion, doesn't exactly live up to its own claims.

Earlier on Monday, the W3C barred one of my colleagues, News.com reporter Anne Broache, from attending a "Toward More Transparent Government" conference held, ironically, in a government building in Washington, D.C.

W3C's Danny Weitzner, who claims 'public' actually means 'not public'

The conference Web site clearly says: "Conversations and results are public."

But Danny Weitzner, one of the W3C's policy directors and event co-chair, repeatedly claimed in a followup telephone conversation that, by "public," the W3C actually means "closed to the public." Weitzner was the person who personally barred my colleague from entering the conference.

"There was clearly some ambiguity," Weitzner said. "We recognize that the (call for participation) could have been more clear." He said that News.com was not being singled out and another reporter who telephoned was also rejected.

Weitzner, a lawyer and Washington insider before moving to the W3C, said making an event discussing government transparency less transparent was necessary because government officials could then speak more freely "without wondering how the press would interpret what they have to say."

"There are times when in order to have an open exchange of ideas, you need to provide an off-the-record environment, which is what we did," Weitzner said. He was, however, unable to identify any government officials who attended the event who might feel stifled.

The event also featured a keynote speech by W3C Director Tim Berners-Lee on the topic of "Widescale data integration: opportunities and challenges."

When asked whether Berners-Lee, hardly reticent about expressing his opinions on this topic, would be opposed to media coverage, Weitzner replied: "The purpose of his event was not to publicize his views."

It's true that the W3C has the right to close its meetings, of course, though we wonder about about the propriety of doing it when a federal building is the venue. The W3C event was held at the National Academy of Sciences, created by an act of Congress in 1863 and funded primarily by federal tax dollars.

The bigger question is whether it's wise for a standards body that supposedly prides itself on openness -- and providing an alternative to proprietary, secretive organizations -- to bar the press from covering, on behalf of our readers, events that are listed as "public" on its own Web site. (It's not like these are confidential discussions about W3C staff salaries or anything, after all, and the Internet Engineering Task Force allows reporters into its working group sessions.)

This week's event at the National Academy of Sciences certainly seems newsworthy. Beyond Berners-Lee's keynote, there also were position papers submitted by Google, Red Hat, the U.S. Library of Congress, the U.S. General Services Administration, and the U.K. Office of Public Sector Information.

The Web site says that "W3C membership is not required in order to participate in the Workshop" -- it doesn't mention any fees nor were we asked to pay any. News.com didn't register in advance, it's true, but Weitzner claimed that we would have been barred anyway.

The odd thing is that before we heard back from Weitzner, we talked to W3C spokeswoman Janet Daly, who said "I can't apologize enough" for the confusion and added, for good measure, "I'm very sorry."

"I think if I had been in DC, I probably would have said, 'Geez, why can't we have her in here?'" Daly said, referring to my colleague who got the boot.

Kudos to her: at least someone at the W3C seems to favor transparency in an official event about, ah, transparency. Unfortunately Weitzner, who gets to make these decisions, doesn't seem to have figured that out.