Highlights: “We need to rewild the Internet”

Today I read We Need To Rewild The Internet by Maria Farrell and Robin Berjon (April 16, 2024), and below are my personal annotated highlights from it.

Subtitle of the article, to set the tone:

The internet has become an extractive and fragile monoculture. But we can revitalize it using lessons learned by ecologists.

Concept of ‘shifting baselines’ which is useful in many other contexts when considering ‘change’:

As Jepson and Blythe wrote, shifting baselines are “where each generation assumes the nature they experienced in their youth to be normal and unwittingly accepts the declines and damage of the generations before.” Damage is already baked in. It even seems natural.

Rewilding vs. timid incremental fixes that afford no true progress:

But rewilding a built environment isn’t just sitting back and seeing what tender, living thing can force its way through the concrete. It’s razing to the ground the structures that block out light for everyone not rich enough to live on the top floor.

Deep defects run deep:

Perhaps one way to motivate and encourage regulators and enforcers everywhere is to explain that the subterranean architecture of the internet has become a shadowland where evolution has all but stopped. Regulators’ efforts to make the visible internet competitive will achieve little unless they also tackle the devastation that lies beneath. 

Public utilities need to be recognized as such, and funded as such (including the non-profit organization I work for, W3C, which develops standards for one application of the Internet: the Web):

[Instead, w]We need more publicly funded tech research with publicly released findings. Such research should investigate power concentration in the internet ecosystem and practical alternatives to it. We need to recognize that much of the internet’s infrastructure is a de facto utility that we must regain control of.

Better ways of doing it (also, read as a pair with the concluding paragraph of the article which I labeled ‘manifesto’):

The solutions are the same in ecology and technology: aggressively use the rule of law to level out unequal capital and power, then rush in to fill the gaps with better ways of doing things.

Principled robust infrastructure:

We need internet standards to be global, open and generative. They’re the wire models that give the internet its planetary form, the gossamer-thin but steely-strong threads holding together its interoperability against fragmentation and permanent dominance.

Manifesto (which I read several times and understood more of each time):

Ecologists have reoriented their field as a “crisis discipline,” a field of study that’s not just about learning things but about saving them. We technologists need to do the same. Rewilding the internet connects and grows what people are doing across regulation, standards-setting and new ways of organizing and building infrastructure, to tell a shared story of where we want to go. It’s a shared vision with many strategies. The instruments we need to shift away from extractive technological monocultures are at hand or ready to be built.

I am looking forward to a piece (or a collection of pieces) that will talk to the people in a manner that they hear this [understand it] and that moves them to make different choices.

Pretty much as I am doggedly and single-mindedly making different and sensible ecological choices for the planet, while I look forward to people being moved at last to durably do the same.

My thanks to Robin (who I know and work with) and to Maria (who I’d like to know now)!

25th work anniversary

25 January 1999 was my first day at W3C. I was 23 years old when I started. I’ve now spent more than half my life at that. I regret nothing because I find the work I do really interesting, important, meaningful; and I don’t tire of it because I feel like there’s renewal every now and then. I’ve held many positions, worn many hats, learned a lot of things and I work with incredibly smart and dedicated people. This has been and is very rewarding.

Young white woman with long brown hair sitting at an office desk with a large cathode ray tube monitor, computer, papers, and a window with blinds in the background.
Coralie at her desk. Photo of February 1999. Resolution of 640x480px, because: early digital cameras!

I selected a highlight for each year (in many cases it was hard to choose just one, so I didn’t) for a retrospective:

  • 1999: Meeting in Toronto; my first transatlantic flight
  • 2000: Organized the first W3C TPAC in Europe: TPAC 2001, Mandelieu
  • 2001: Started to code my personal website (koalie.net)
  • 2002: Training in management
  • 2003: Elected staff representative (per French Labour law)
  • 2004: Was asked to consider joining the W3C Comm Team
  • 2005: Joined the Comm Team (half-time); became staff contact of the W3C Advisory Board (a role I held for 12 years)
  • 2006: Moved to Boston to work 9 months at MIT as a “Visiting Scholar”
  • 2007: Handed off the management of the W3C Europe team’s travels, budgets and policies
  • 2008: Joined the Comm Team full-time; organized my last big meeting: TPAC 2008 + Team Day, in Mandelieu
  • 2009: Learn to edit the W3C website
  • 2010: Put W3C on social media, and Tim Berners-Lee on Twitter
  • 2011: Interviewed for a job elsewhere but failed after round 3
  • 2012: Co-wrote the first draft of the W3C code of ethics and professional conduct
  • 2013: Training in product management; First presentation in front of W3C Members (on how incubated work moves to the standardization track)
  • 2014: Spearheaded “Webizen”, a first attempt to open W3C Membership to individuals; Re-elected Staff Representative
  • 2015: Became Head of the W3C Comm Team
  • 2016: Survived year one of the Encrypted Media Extensions public relations nightmare
  • 2017: Stopped being the AB Team contact; Survived year two of EME PR nightmare
  • 2018: Management of the W3C “diversity fund” to financially help people who are from under-represented communities attend TPAC; Re-elected Staff Representative
  • 2019: Go-to-Market strategy for W3C’s legal entity; Narrative strategy for fundraising in the future
  • 2020: W3C Website redesign project (RFP, selection, contributions, leading)
  • 2021: The “Ralph’s office zoom background” prank; W3C Website redesign (continued)
  • 2022: Re-elected Staff Representative; Website public content re-write; second attempt to open W3C Membership to individuals; proposed W3C internal re-organization; burn-out
  • 2023: W3C Website launch; got COVID for the first time; Humane Technology Design certification; e(X)filtration of the W3C Twitter account and moved it full-time to Mastodon (an instance we operate ourselves)

It is as likely as anything else that I will finish my career at the Web Consortium. I wouldn’t mind!

I stepped down from the round table

The fictional round table from the Arthurian legend of the Middle Ages is the locus where King Arthur gathered the Fellowship that ensured the peace of his Kingdom. The table was round as a symbol of the equality of its members who included royalty as well as nobles of less importance.

The World Wide Web Consortium is hardly a Kingdom but I can’t help to draw a parallel between the W3C management group and the Round Table!

Historical background

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, founded W3C to coordinate Web standards development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1994, and as soon as possible (which was 6 months after) added Inria (Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et Automatique) as the first European W3C host in 1995 (replaced in 2003 by ERCIM), followed by Keio University of Japan in 1996, and finally Beihang University in China in 2013.

For the first 28 years of the Consortium, these four Hosts partnered administratively to manage W3C Members (invoicing and collection) and to provide employment of the global W3C staff working under the direction of W3C’s management (W3M). W3M’s composition, which is rather stable, is thus based on the people in position of leadership at the Hosts. At times where a particular geography was insufficiently represented, we’ve increased representation for that geography.

2023: a new order

Fast forward to January 2023 when W3C became its own legal entity by moving to a public-interest non-profit organization and continues the same standard development process as one single corporation, and three of the Hosts became Partners. The authority, legal obligations and fiduciary responsibility are with the corporation.

A few months before the transition, the CEO we had had for twelve years retired, having successfully set enough things in motion for the Consortium to become incorporated. At this point, our COO became the interim CEO and finalized everything, put out the fires, set up the things that were required for the new corporation, and relied heavily on the rest of the W3C Team for maintaining our activities.

The W3M round table

I draw a parallel with King Arthur’s round table because his gesture was a federating one, and his goal was to rule the kingdom with all of its stake-holders. The W3C Management team (W3M) today continues with the same assortment of people from our global distributed team, some of whom are no longer managers, and some of whom are not involved anymore in any W3C Team work.

Redesigning it

One of the side projects I undertook last year was to propose a new internal organization, that I called “the Houses model”. It aimed to (1) merge the related functions to achieve a coherent, manageable and meaningful operating model, (2) remove “split” staff where possible, in order to gain in efficiency and coordination, and (3) attempt to fix the known negative optic that 25% of the W3C team (yes! incredible!) were on W3M, by streamlining it.

It took me a month to design it, socialize it with key people, make further adjustments, and put it to W3M’s vote. The resolution passed (yeah!) but it was the (then) CEO’s opinion that the consortium could not withstand an internal reorganization before the transition (meh!).

Objecting and finally leaving the round table

Starting before the W3C Inc. transition, W3M activities, which were to continue unchanged, slowed down rather abruptly and gradually came to a halt. W3Mers held their honorary positions while fewer matters were discussed and the group met less and less frequently, ultimately to deal asynchronously with scraps only.

I understand the inherent inertia of big groups. I recognize the allure of expediting decision-making where there is too many pressing matters and not enough time. But I thought that a temporary structure to allow leadership with transparency could have been set up, and some of the frustration could have been prevented. Not by scrambling to implement the Houses model we had decided to adopt. But with due diligence and open dialogue so that everyone understood the need for extraordinary measures.

For about a year, the status quo did not sit well with me (and I let the group know, early and often) because the opacity was not fair to the [rest of the] group itself, but also to the W3C Team and W3C Members whose expectations remained that decisions were the consensus of W3M, when it was no longer the case. I had concerns about the risk of taking insufficiently informed decisions or uninformed decisions. I had a strong discomfort with being personally associated with any decision that I actually hardly contributed to, if at all. So I asked to step down from the management group a few weeks ago and today I did.

I continue as Head of the W3C Communications team and have enough on my plate to keep me busy. I would be happy to consider rejoining the W3C Management team in the future, but as I do not care about a honorary position, it would have to be for meaningful contributions again.

December update: In the meantime, W3C hired a new CEO, who after a few weeks was ready to reconvene the management team. I was invited rather organically.

Day-to-day work at W3C

An author for IEEE asked me last week, for an article he’s writing, to write a high level introduction to the World Wide Web Consortium, and what its day-to-day work looks like.

Most of the time when we get asked, we pull from boilerplate descriptions, and/or from the website, and send a copy-paste and links. It takes less than a minute. But every now and then, I write something from scratch. It brings me right back to why I am in awe of what the web community does at the Consortium, and why I am so proud and grateful to be a small part of it.

Then that particular write-up becomes my favourite until the next time I’m in the mood to write another version. Here’s my current best high level introduction to the World Wide Web Consortium, and what its day-to-day work looks like, which I have adorned with home-made illustrations I showed during a conference talk a few years ago.

World Wide What Consortium?

The World Wide Web Consortium was created in 1994 by Tim Berners-Lee, a few years after he had invented the Word Wide Web. He did so in order for the interests of the Web to be in the hands of the community.

“If I had turned the Web into a product, it would have been in people’s interest to create an incompatible version of it.”

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web

So for almost 28 years, W3C has been developing standards and guidelines to help everyone build a web that is based on crucial and inclusive values: accessibility, internationalization, privacy and security, and the principle of interoperability. Pretty neat, huh? Pretty broad too!

From the start W3C has been an international community where member organizations, a full-time staff, and the public work together in the open.

Graphic with illustrations showing that the public and members contribute to 52 work groups, and that 56 people in the w3c staff help create web standards of which there were 400 at the time I made this drawing
W3C Overview

The sausage

In the web standards folklore, the product –web standards– are called “the sausage” with tongue in cheek. (That’s one of the reasons behind having made black aprons with a white embroidered W3C icon on the front, as a gift to our Members and group participants when a big meeting took place in Lyon, the capital of French cuisine.)

Since 1994, W3C Members have produced 454 standards. The most well-known are HTML and CSS because they have been so core to the web for so long, but in recent years, in particular since the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve heard a lot about WebRTC which turns terminals and devices into communication tools by enabling real-time audio/video, and other well-known standards include XML which powers vast data systems on the web, or WebAuthn which significantly improves security while interacting with sites, or Web Content Authoring Guidelines which puts web accessibility to the fore and is critical to make the web available to people of all disabilities and all abilities.

The sausage factory

The day to day work we do is really of setting the stages to bring various groups together in parallel to progress on nearly 400 specifications (at the moment), developed in over 50 different groups.

There are 2,000 participants from W3C Members in those groups, and over 13,000 participants in the public groups that anyone can create and join and where typically specifications are socialized and incubated.

There are about 50 persons in the W3C staff, a fourth of which dedicate time as helpers to advise on the work, technologies, and to ensure easy “travel” on the Recommendation track, for groups which advance the web specifications following the W3C process (the steps through which specs must progress.)

Graphic showing a stick figure with 16 arms and smaller drawings of stick figure at a computer, stick figure talking to people, and stick figure next to documents. The graphic lists nine different roles: super interface, representation of w3c in groups, participation and contribution, technical expertise, mastering the process, creation of groups and their management, liaison with other technical groups, being consensual.
Role of the W3C staff in work groups

The rest of the staff operate at the level of strategy setting and tracking for technical work, soundness of technical integrity of the global work, meeting the particular needs of industries which rely on the web or leverage it, integrity of the work with regard to the values that drive us: accessibility, internationalization, privacy and security; and finally, recruiting members, doing marketing and communications (that’s where I fit!), running events for the work groups to meet, and general administrative support.

Graphic with stick figures representing Tim Berners-Lee, the CEO and the team, and four areas of help: support, strategy, architecture & technology, industry, project.
W3C team

Why does it work?

Several of the unique strengths of W3C are our proven process which is optimized to seek consensus and aim for quality work; and our ground-breaking Patent Policy whose royalty-free commitments boosts broad adoption: W3C standards may be used by any corporation, anyone, at no cost: if they were not free, developers would ignore them.

Graphic showing the steps from an idea to a web standard
From an idea to a standard

There are other strengths but in the interest of time, I’ll stop at the top two. There are countless stories and many other facets, but that would be for another time.

Sorry, it turned out to be a bit long because it’s hard to do a quick intro; there is so much work. If you’re still with me (hi!), did you learn anything from this post?