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The W3C steers the way the World Wide Web works. Yet it is reluctant to record crucial meetings – and its minutes are incomplete

Ability to debate frankly in private versus right of netizens to know what exactly is discussed

Since October 2019, people participating in discussions about the way the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) builds web standards have been unable to decide whether meetings held by the standard's body's various groups should be recorded or not.

The chair of the W3C Process Community Group, Apple software standards manager David Singer, has backed concerns raised by others that recordings inhibit participation, arguing in a GitHub Issues thread for a policy that requires the explicit consent of meeting participants who would be recorded, even if the recording is for personal use. And he has further argued that separate explicit consent should be obtained before any recording is distributed or made public.

Chris Wilson, standards manager at Google, co-chair of the W3C's Immersive Web Working Group and a participant in the Process Community Group, has said that seeking consent is fine but recording shouldn't be disallowed.

And another Googler, Chrome developer advocate Yoav Weiss, made the case for the benefits of recordings, like bringing in new member organizations and more accurate documentation of meetings. Contemplating a possible policy that tells meeting participants they "should not" record discussions, he said, "Instead of encouraging openness and transparency by default, we would be encouraging the opposite. I don't think we should do that."

But this is more than technical folk ostensibly speaking for themselves while echoing the communications policies of their respective employers – Apple consistently skews toward opaqueness, and Google, at least for open technologies, tends toward transparency.

It's a discussion about whether there's an accurate, verifiable record of technical decisions that define the web and affect the governments, organizations, and individuals using it.

Who watches the watchmen?

The W3C is an international standards body that attempts to coordinate the development of technical standards for the World Wide Web. It acts on behalf of 422 member organizations, a group that includes global tech giants like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, as well as representatives from academia and government. It's funded by member dues, public and private grants, and sponsorships and donations. And its work affects pretty much everyone online, though not everyone is satisfied with the influence large companies have on that process.

The specifications the W3C has helped developed and formalize include technologies like HTML, XML, CSS, and WebAssembly, to name a few. These specs get hammered out in working groups, then go through internal and public reviews, implementation, and eventually get formally approved by W3C members.

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The results of these deliberations – for example, the W3C's controversial 2017 approval of Encrypted Media Extensions (DRM) – have a major impact on what's possible on the web and what's not.

The meetings at issue, where W3C groups discuss the web's technical architecture, generally get documented as minutes – a written summary of who said what. But these minutes may be inaccurate or incomplete.

Last week, Zach Edwards, co-founder of web analytics biz Victory Medium and a privacy advocate who has been participating in the discussion, pointed to a meeting about Google's Privacy Sandbox proposals that Google transcribed only partially.

Via Twitter DM, Edwards pointed to several other meeting minutes that are missing relevant details or weren't transcribed verbatim.

"If in every meeting, the participants get to decide whether to properly document what happened, that's a real problem," Edwards argued in a post to the discussion thread last week. "The meeting minutes never capture nuance, they are all formatted differently, and there are too many examples of important discussions not being fully captured."

Edwards's concern is that W3C decisions, because they affect so many businesses, should be as transparent as possible. He argues that W3C should be bound by Sunshine Laws – which impose disclosure requirements on government organizations – because it sees participation and support from governments, some of which takes the form of federal contracts.

No duty to inform

Over the weekend, Florian Rivoal, a member of the W3C Advisory Board, rebutted that claim and insisted the organization doesn't have any disclosure obligation.

"W3C members are not elected officials with a duty to inform their constituents about how they participate," he wrote. "W3C specifications do not have the force of law, to which the public would have a right to know how they came about. There may be some exceptions due to some projects receiving research grants, but groups at W3C aren't running on public money either."

The Register emailed Wendy Seltzer, strategy lead and counsel for the W3C, to ask whether she had any thoughts on whether meetings should be recorded and whether there's a legal obligation to accurately convey meeting discussions. We've not yet received a reply.

But on Monday, she posted to the discussion noting that the organization's Process guidelines lay out the rules for meetings and said group chairs are following those rules if they choose not to record meetings.

"W3C is also motivated by openness, formally and in practice," she wrote.

"It is important both that people be able to participate, and that they feel comfortable expressing their inputs. Since we have heard from some people that they would not be comfortable participating if they expected audio recordings to be made available, it seems that we get better standards participation if recording continues not to be the default. The minutes serve as official record and are available for reference in reviewing discussion and decisions."

In other words, the official record isn't necessarily the complete record. ®

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