Theresa O’Connor

W3C TAG Ethical Web Principles (transcript)

Good morning, everybody, and good afternoon or evening to those dialing in from other time zones or those of you experiencing jet lag.

I’m Tess. I’m from the TAG, and I’m here to tell you about the Ethical Web Principles document. Its editors, Amy, Dan, and Hadley, couldn’t be with us here in Vancouver so, for better or worse, you’re getting my idiosyncractic take on the document, its history, and its current status.

First, a bit about the TAG. We’re a special group at the W3C charged with stewardship of the Web platform & to document and build consensus around principles of Web architecture.

The Ethical Web Principles document is on the Note track and we hope to elevate it to a W3C Statement.

We’re not the only group here at the W3C grappling with the relationship between ethical concerns and our work here in the consortium. The Advisory Board’s draft Vision for the Web stakes out a specifically ethical vision that I think aligns very well with the TAG document.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence. But to explain that, we have to start at the beginning.

When Tim first proposed to work on what became the web back in ’89, his driving motivation was around the digital preservation of scientific information. This purpose of his back then is fundamentally an ethical purpose. It’s at the heart of archival science. So, to be clear, our work at the W3C has always been driven by ethical concerns and constrained within ethical framing.

I’d like to take you through a number of the principles in the document which have been at the core of what we’ve all been doing since the early days of work on the Web.

I’m sure some of you remember Tim’s bit during the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics. He said then that the web is for everyone.

There are two principles related to this, one of which we’ll get to later. Part of making the Web be for everyone is ensuring that people in one location should be able to view web pages from anywhere that is connected to the web. [§2.1 There is one web]

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Tim’s original vision for the web was that it would be a read-write medium. That it’s not just something to passively consume, but that everyone on the web should have the ability to add to the web. To grow the web.

We’ve tried to capture at least some of that in the transparency principle. This is the idea that users should be able to view the source code of the web page they’re visiting, and even that developer tools should be available in their browser for them to be able to understand how the page works.

Ever since we first started thinking about how to style web pages, we wanted to make sure that users had control over how pages look. Here’s Chris Lilley making that point back in ’94. That’s in the document too.

In fact, this focus on the user isn’t just about styling. It’s at the core of everything we do. The Priority of Constituencies made it clear to all of us 15 years ago that user needs come first.

Speaking of user needs, there are a number of special kinds of user needs that we’ve captured in the Process via horizontal review. These are accessibility, internationalization, privacy, and security. These have been important areas of work for us for many, many years.

Accessibility and internationalization are covered by the principle I promised we’d get to earlier: [§2.4 The web is for all people].

Privacy and security are covered by rather straightforward principle: [§2.5 Security and privacy are essential].

It’s also always been important to us that the web work across different platforms, devices, and media. That’s in there too.

But not all of the principles come from our shared work on the web so far. They’re motivated by some of the harder challenges facing us today.

The web is the loudest amplifier ever created, and these days it’s being used to to spread misinformation, conspiracy theories, and hate. That doesn’t just make the web an unpleasant place to visit, it threatens civic institutions and societies worldwide.

And unintended consequences of technical decisions we made long ago have enabled the wholesale hoovering of personal, often intimate data into a complex, opaque, and unaccountable system of surveillance that profits few and harms us all.

There are several principles in the document that we hope will help everyone here at the W3C as we tackle these problems:

But of course it’ll all be for nought if we fail to survive or blunt the coming climate catastrophe. We, the people working on the web, need to do our part there too.

So, in summary, in order to lead the web to its full potential, we must first do no harm. [§2.2 The web should not cause harm to society]