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by Yves Lafon (W3C)

The Technical Architecture Group (TAG) is a special working group within the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Its mission is to document and build consensus around principles of web architecture to help ensure that the web makes sense as a platform and that the overall design is coherent.

To achieve this, the TAG [L1] provides reviews of all specifications produced at W3C, and some outside of W3C. During those reviews, patterns emerged, like common issues, or unintended harmful consequences.

As such, the TAG produced a series of documents, called principles, to address those issues early-on. They are part of the TAG's publications known as Findings (short documents that cover a specific issue in the web architecture). Most principles are purely technical, but the basic principles started as general ethical guidelines, like "Put user needs first (Priority of Constituencies)", "It should be safe to visit a web page" or "Leave the web better than you found it". A wider list of those principles led to the creation of the Ethical Web Principles.

The initial observations from the TAG became of interest for the whole W3C membership, leading to the publication of those documents in the Statement track, meaning that the goal is to get the consensus of the W3C membership on those documents. This document and the set of principles included are not only intended for specification developers, but also for website authors, tools designers, etc.

The web should empower an equitable, informed and interconnected society. It has been, and should continue to be, designed to enable communication and knowledge-sharing for everyone. In order for the web to continue to be beneficial to society, we need to consider the ethical implications of our work when we build web technologies, applications, and sites.

The web is made up of several technologies and technical standards. HTML, CSS and JavaScript are often thought of as the web's core set of technologies but there are a raft of other technologies, standards, languages, and APIs that come together to form the "web platform". One of the web platform's differentiators has always been a strong ethical framework; for example, an emphasis on internationalisation, accessibility, privacy, and security.

Web technologies are also offered royalty free to enable open source implementation. These are often cited as some of the strengths of the web. Despite this, in the 30 years since development of the web began, it has become clear that the web platform can often be used in ways that subvert its original mission, or even be used to cause harm.

The architecture of the web is designed with the notion of different classes of application that retrieve and process content, and represent the needs of the application's users. This includes web browsers, web-hosted applications such as search engines, and software that acts on web resources. This lends itself well towards empowering people by allowing them to choose the browser, search engine, or other application that best meets their needs (for example, with strong privacy protections).

The web should also support human rights, dignity, and personal agency. We need to put internationally recognised human rights at the core of the web platform. We can reinforce this approach by promoting ethical thinking across the web industry.

The principles in the W3C TAG Ethical Web Principles document [L2] are deliberately unordered, and many are interconnected with each other. They are intended to be viewed holistically, rather than each one in isolation. While all of the principles together aim to provide pillars that collectively support a web that is beneficial for society, there are cases where the effects of upholding one principle may diminish the efficacy of another principle. Thus in applying these principles, there are benefits and trade-offs that may need to be carefully balanced. When proposals that support particular principles appear to be in conflict with other principles, it is important to consider the context in which the technology is being applied, the expected audience(s) for the technology, who the technology benefits and who it may disadvantage, and any power dynamics involved (see also the priority of constituencies).

This document is still being discussed actively and many changes and clarifications are expected in the near future. Feedback is welcome in the related GitHub repository [L3].

W3C TAG Ethical Web principles
• There is one web
• The web should not cause harm to society
• The web must support healthy community and debate
• The web is for all people
• Security and privacy are essential
• The web must enable freedom of expression
• The web must make it possible for people to verify the information they see
• The web must enhance individuals' control and power
• The web must be an environmentally sustainable platform
• The web is transparent
• The web is multi-browser, multi-OS, and multi-device
• People should be able to render web content as they want.


Please contact:
Yves Lafon, W3C
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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