The Web and the Promise of a Global Sustainable Future

Steve Bratt, Chief Executive Officer, World Wide Web Consortium and World Wide Web Foundation (steve@webfoundation.org)
Daniel Dardailler, Director of International Relations, World Wide Web Consortium (danield@w3.org)
Stéphane Boyera, Staff Lead, Mobile Web For Social Development Interest Group, World Wide Web Consortium (boyera@w3.org)

Prepared for the ICT FOR A GLOBAL SUSTAINABLE FUTURE International Conference, organized by the European Commission
Brussels January 22-23, 2009

Exec Summary

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the recently announced World Wide Web Foundation (Web Foundation) share the vision of an Information Society in which everyone can create, share, access, benefit from information made available through a free and open Web.

As we "collectively enter a new era of enormous potential", to quote the UN WSIS Declaration of Principles, the mission of the W3C and Web Foundation align with the goal of a more sustainable future through lowering the digital divide and improving governance of the Internet.

In this paper, we present the role of W3C's open Web standards and how existing and emerging Web applications (e.g. in areas such as mobile, accessibility, internationalization) are delivering on the promise of a better Information Society. We also preview the supporting and complementary role of the new Web Foundation, with its broader focus on advancing Web science, Web standards and the empowerment of people through the Web.

Introduction to the World Wide Web Consortium

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the international body responsible for the development of the free and open standards that make the Web work. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web in 1989 while working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), has served as the W3C Director since establishing the body in 1994.

W3C's mission is to lead the World Wide Web to its full potential, through the development and standardization of core Web specifications and guidelines, including well-known standards like HTML and XML, and guidelines that make the Web accessible for people with disabilities. W3C has published more than 110 such standards, called W3C Recommendations. A key aspect of this work is ensuring that these core standards are compatible with one another, and that they allow any person using an expanding variety of hardware and software to access the Web. W3C refers to this goal as “Web interoperability.” By publishing open (non-proprietary) royalty-free standards for Web languages and protocols, W3C's work opens new markets, avoids market fragmentation and ensures the growth of a single Web, where the same information and knowledge is available to all who have Web access.

W3C is a vendor-neutral forum -- a gathering place, dedicated to building consensus around Web technologies within the framework of a fair and open Process. W3C Members include representatives from industry, academia, government, and non-profits. The work is conducted largely in the public, and public input is critical to quality and acceptance of W3C's work. The Consortium, supported by a dedicated full-time staff of technical experts, has earned international recognition for its contributions to the Web.

W3C has headquarters in 3 countries and World Offices in 17 additional countries. The W3C Offices work with their regional Web communities to promote W3C technologies in local languages, broaden W3C's geographical base, and encourage international participation in W3C Activities. Operations are supported by a combination of Member dues, research grants, and other sources of public and private funding, and the Supporters Program.

Introduction to the World Wide Web Foundation

Though the Web is the most powerful medium for communication and commerce the world has ever known, close to 5 million people do not have access to it, and no organization is focused on the full range of challenges and solutions needed to accelerate the value that the Web can bring to the world.

To help fill this gap, the World Wide Web Foundation will be launched in 2009. The Web Foundation will mobilize interest and expertise from the Web community and beyond to advance the Web to benefit humanity. In support of this goal, the Web Foundation will work to ensure that the Web remains free and open, that we understand the Web and see that it improves in a robust manner, that the Web is usable by all people, and that the Web is useful as a means of improving lives. An important part of this will be providing additional support for Web standards, like those produced by W3C. The Foundation will also support the new field of Web science, as promoted by the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI).

Most importantly, the Web Foundation seeks to lower the barriers of accessing the Web for people who are not able to find usable and useful information, especially in under-served populations. It will work to ensure the Web is accessible for all people, including people with disabilities, from different cultures, and with language and literacy skills that span the range of the Earth's population. A reduction of barriers to life-critical services is particularly important.

The Web Foundation will be registered in Geneva, Switzerland, and will have a presence in other countries. Its creation has been seeded by a $5 million / 5 year grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Web Foundation will leverage this generous gift to raise additional funding to fuel its work. The Foundation will fund qualified teams to execute projects, and will take an active role in the development, coordination and conduct of these projects to ensure their success.

Primary Issues: Digital Divide, Internet Governance

Two issues of concern at this conference and within scope of the W3C and Web Foundation are: the Digital Divide (how to help the ones that need it most) and Internet Governance (who is in charge?). W3C has already a strong stake in addressing both of these issues, and the new Web Foundation will make the Digital Divide a central focus.

Standardization has always been one of the essential building blocks of the Information Society. The development of Web standards and relevant policies has always been at the heart of the W3C's work.

The W3C process and actions illustrate that:

To reach its vision, the Web Foundation has to do more than support open Web standardization. It will mobilize the world’s Web community to tackle the most significant challenges and opportunities facing the Web now and in the future. Most prominently, the Foundation will coordinate and fund, in an integrated manner, projects in the Web community that leverage the community’s strengths across new axes:

The next two sections look deeper at the issue of Internet Governance and the Digital Divide, and how the W3C and Web Foundation are mobilizing to help.

Internet Governance: Focus on Broad Issues

W3C develops the foundation of the World Wide Web. The Web builds upon Internet technology, and other systems, in turn, build upon the Web standards published by W3C. In a sense, Web technology development places us in the "middle" of the Internet Governance discussion, somewhere between underlying protocols and overlying social issues. Consequently, our position on Internet Governance, or on Internet coordination more generally, is summarized as follows:

The Web 'sits' on the Internet, and the new Web Foundation will need to understand clearly what are the technical responsibilities for all the organizations impacting the development of the Internet and the Web, even though it is specifically created by the Web technical community.

But we're well equipped: the technical standards of the Internet and the Web have been, and are still, developed in a multi-stakeholder way, with an open and participative bottom-up style. This style is based on simple principles, such as interoperability (i.e., it should work on any hardware, with any operating system, and from any software), and universality (i.e., it should work irrespective of culture, language, character sets used; and it should be accessible to people with disabilities).

Our message for policy makers is simple: You should do whatever you can to help narrow the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" for information access, just as for clean water and health care. National, regional, international government organizations should play an important role as sponsors (thanks to the EC and other agencies for having supported W3C for all these years) and users of the Internet technologies (eGoverment advocates of open standards). We must make sure policy makers worldwide are aware of the ongoing evolution of open decentralized information networks by joining the community that we represent.

Digital Divide and Role of the Web

Today half of the World’s population is living on less than $2.5 a day (source "Poverty Facts and Stats"). This part of the population is suffering from a lack of all types of services (health, government, education, finance,...) which prevents them from increasing their income and from entering into a sustainable development phase. Using the Web would be the easiest and best way to develop and deploy the services needed. During the last few years, the potential of simple services to provide solutions in these area has been largely demonstrated (see e.g. The Digital Provide: Information (technology), Market, Performance, and Welfare in the south Indian Fisheries Sector) . It is therefore critical to work towards bridging the Digital Divide to have a significant positive impact on the future of the Developing World, and to have a chance to realize the UN Millennium Development Goals.

In this regard, by the end of 2008, only around 1.5 billion people are connected to the Web (source Internet World Statistics), and almost 5 billion people are not benefiting from the Information Society. The World Wide Web Foundation will investigate how to make the Web relevant, accessible, usable and useful for a large part of these 5 billion people, who are, in a vast majority, living in developing countries, and below the poverty line.

There are indeed three specific aspects to consider to bridge the digital divide:

The first challenge is about providing devices and appropriate bandwidth to connect people to people and people to information. By some estimates, there will soon be almost 4 billion mobile phones in the world, providing connectivity and at least minimal computing power. The explosion of mobile telephony and the growing penetration rate even amongst the poorest segment of our population is a promising sign, and a great opportunity. The Web Foundation will not work directly to increase connectivity.

Given at least the potential for connectivity, it is next critical that relevant, accessible, usable and useful content is available, searchable and findable by people. This is the focus of the Web Foundation's future work. We believe that this technology has the capacity to empower a very large segment of humanity, by bringing the capability of the Web to them through inexpensive mobile instruments such as the mobile phone. The mobile Web has the capacity to bring rich and relevant information to individuals when and where they need it. The information available to them in this way consists not only of services specially targeted for them, but is in fact the sum of human information and knowledge that has been transferred via the entire World Wide Web. Local applications can take advantage of this by referencing this information, no matter where it exists in the World.

The Web Foundation will particularly explore two complementary directions to make significant advances in the Information availability and accessibility for people who can benefit from it the most:

In summary, the potential of information and communication technologies to address development challenges has been funded heavily in the last 15 years, with less-than-satisfactory results. The availability of expanding mobile phones and networks offer new opportunities to shift the focus from the connectivity problem to providing useful and usable information and services that could improve people's lives. In this domain, new technologies have to be developed to meet the specific profiles of targeted populations, and authoring and deploying development-oriented content have to be fostered through proactive actions towards empowering people. The Web Foundation has been setup to drive such an effort but, to have a real impact at the global level, it requires the participation and investment, in time, energy, and resources, of all parties and stakeholders that are part of the picture: international organizations, governments, regulators, computer and telecommunication companies, NGOs, civil society, grassroots organizations, academics, and, most importantly, people in the field.

NB: Some of the results and directions that are described in this section are built on the work of the W3C Mobile Web for Social Development Interest Group, which is part of the EU-FP7 project Digital World Forum focusing on the use of ICT to leverage economic development in Africa and Latin America.

Digital World Forum logo EU FP7 Logo


For the World Wide Web Consortium and the World Wide Web Foundation, every paper and speech is an opportunity to solicit interest, dialog and participation to support the important missions of our organizations. This paper outlines our plans to work with other global organizations and individuals on the critical issues of internet governance, the digital divide and other challenges. W3C's recently started eGovernment activity is an invitation to work together toward better administration practices in the technology area. Our new Web Foundation offers an invitation to work together to help those with the most pressing needs leverage the Web to benefit their lives. Please contact us if you are interested in participating in our work:

Steve Bratt, Daniel Dardailler, Stéphane Boyera
Last updated: $Date: 2009/01/12 21:07:31 $