W3C TAG Ethical Web Principles

W3C TAG Finding

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Daniel Appelquist (Samsung)
Hadley Beeman (Invited Expert)
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The web should be a platform that helps people and provides a net positive social benefit. As we continue to evolve the web platform, we must therefore consider the ethical consequences of our work. The following document sets out ethical principles that will drive the TAG's continuing work in this direction.

Status of This Document

This document is a draft Technical Architecture Group (TAG) Finding. It does not contain any normative content.

This document reflects the consensus of the TAG at the time of publication. It will continue to evolve and the TAG will issue updates as often as needed.

1. Introduction

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 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 that mission. Furthermore, web technologies can be used to cause harm, which is not in keeping with the spirit of this social mission. The web should be a platform that helps people and provides a net positive social benefit. As we continue to evolve the web platform, we must therefore consider the ethical implications of our work. The web must be for good.

In order for the web to continue to be beneficial to society, we need to include more ethical thinking when we build web technologies, applications and sites. The web is made up of a number of 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 internationalization accessibility privacy security

Web technologies are also offered royalty free to enable open source implementation, arguably an ethical choice that has been a factor in its success as a platform. These are often cited as some of the strengths of the web.

The architecture of the web is designed with the important 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 this more ethical approach by allowing the person using the web to choose a 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 recognized human rights at the core of the web platform. [UDHR] And we need to promote ethical thinking across the web industry to reinforce this approach.

The purpose of this document is to inform TAG review of new specifications and to inform other documents such as the Web Platform Design Principles, Self-Review Questionnaire: Security and Privacy or other similar checklists and sets of principles used by specification authors and editors. It also serves to raise awareness of the ethical responsibilities of web makers.

2. Principles

2.1 There is one web

When we are adding new web technologies and platforms, we will build them to cross regional and national boundaries. People in one location should be able to view web pages from anywhere that is connected to the web.

2.2 The web should not cause harm to society

When we are adding a feature or technology to the web, we will consider what harm it could do to society or groups, especially vulnerable people. We will prioritize potential benefits for web users over potential benefits to web developers, content providers, user agents, advertisers or others in the ecosystem, in line with the priority of constituencies. We will build new web technologies in a collaborative matter according to open processes (for example, the W3C process). Furthermore, by adhering to codes of conduct (such as the W3C Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct) we will ensure the requirements and views of marginalized communities are respected.

2.3 The web must support healthy community and debate

We are building technologies and platforms for distributing ideas, for virtual interaction, and for mass collaboration on any topic. While those tools can be used for good, they can also be used for spreading misinformation, virtual and offline harassment, and building communities for doxxing and persecution. We will consider these risks in the work we do, and will build web technologies and platforms that respect individuals' rights and provide features to empower them against dangers like these.

2.4 The web is for all people

We will build internationalization and localization capabilities into our specs and websites. The web platform and the tools we use to create it must be accessible to people with disabilities. We all should be able to meaningfully participate in the creation of specs, user agents and content, and the platform should enable a fully accessible end user experience. Accessibility involves a wide range of disabilities, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities. We must build for people on low bandwidth networks and low specification equipment.

2.5 Security and privacy are essential

We will write specs and build platforms in line with our responsibility to people who use the web, knowing that we are making decisions that change their ability to protect their personal data. This data includes their conversations, their financial transactions and how they live their lives. We will start by creating web technologies that create as few risks as possible, and will make sure people understand what they are risking in using our services.

2.6 The web must enable freedom of expression

We will create web technologies and platforms that encourage free expression, where that does not contravene other human rights. Our work should not enable state censorship, surveillance or other practices that seek to limit this freedom. This principle must be balanced with respect for other human rights, and does not imply that individual services on the web must therefore support all speech. (For example: hate speech, harassment or abuse may reasonably be denied a platform).

2.7 The web must make it possible for people to verify the information they see

We have a responsibility to build web technologies to counter misinformation, allowing information sources to be traceable and facts to be checkable. The concept of origin and source is core to the web's security model. We will make sure the new web technologies we create do not work against this architectural principle.

2.8 The web must enhance individuals' control and power

We recognize that web technologies can be used to manipulate and deceive people, complicate isolation, and encourage addictive behaviors. We seek to mitigate against these potential abuses and patterns when creating new technologies and platforms, and avoid introducing technologies that increase the chance of people being harmed in this way. As part of this, we favor a decentralized web architecture that minimizes single points of failure and single points of control. We will also build web technologies for individual developers as well for developers at large companies and organizations. The web should enable do-it-yourself developers.

2.9 The web must be an environmentally sustainable platform

The web, as a whole, is a big source of carbon emissions, because it is a big consumer of power. New web technologies should not make this situation worse. We will consider power consumption and the resulting emissions when we introduce new technologies to the web. This includes maximizing the lifespan of physical devices through maintaining compatibility, as well as minimizing data storage and processing requirements.

2.10 The web is transparent

The web was built on a "view source" principle, currently realized through robust developer tools built into many browsers. We will always make sure it is possible to determine how a web application was built and how the code works. Furthermore, we will always make sure it is possible to audit and inspect web applications and underlying software for security, privacy or other considerations.

2.11 The web is multi-browser, multi-OS and multi-device

We will not create web technologies that encourage the creation of websites that work only in one browser. We expect that content provided by accessing a URL should yield a thematically consistent experience when someone is accessing it from different devices. The constant competition and variety of choices that come from having multiple interoperable implementations means the web ecosystem is constantly improving.

2.12 People should be able to render web content as they want

For example, people should be able to install style sheets, assistive browser extensions, and blockers of unwanted content or scripts or auto-played videos. Through technologies such as browser extensions, people must continue to be able to change web pages according to their needs. We will build platforms and write specs that respect peoples' authority, and will create user agents to represent those preferences on someone's behalf.

A. References

A.1 Informative references

Web Platform Design Principles. Sangwhan Moon. W3C. 23 September 2021. W3C Note. URL: https://www.w3.org/TR/design-principles/
Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0. Jo Rabin; Charles McCathieNevile. W3C. 29 July 2008. W3C Recommendation. URL: https://www.w3.org/TR/mobile-bp/
Pervasive Monitoring Is an Attack. S. Farrell; H. Tschofenig. IETF. May 2014. Best Current Practice. URL: https://www.rfc-editor.org/rfc/rfc7258
Self-Review Questionnaire: Security and Privacy. Theresa O'Connor; Peter Snyder. W3C. 23 September 2021. W3C Note. URL: https://www.w3.org/TR/security-privacy-questionnaire/
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations. URL: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/