W3C TAG Ethical Web Principles

W3C Group Draft Note

More details about this document
This version:
Latest published version:
Latest editor's draft:
Commit history
Daniel Appelquist (Invited Expert)
Hadley Beeman (Invited Expert)
Amy Guy (Digital Bazaar)
GitHub w3ctag/ethical-web-principles (pull requests, new issue, open issues)
www-tag@w3.org with subject line [ethical-web-principles] … message topic … (archives)


The web should be a platform that helps people and provides a positive social benefit. As we continue to evolve the web platform, we must therefore consider the consequences of our work. The following document sets out ethical principles that will drive the W3C's continuing work in this direction.

Status of This Document

This section describes the status of this document at the time of its publication. A list of current W3C publications and the latest revision of this technical report can be found in the W3C technical reports index at https://www.w3.org/TR/.

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. The intent is for this document to become a W3C Statement.

This document was published by the Technical Architecture Group as a Group Draft Note using the Note track.

Group Draft Notes are not endorsed by W3C nor its Members.

This is a draft document and may be updated, replaced or obsoleted by other documents at any time. It is inappropriate to cite this document as other than work in progress.

The W3C Patent Policy does not carry any licensing requirements or commitments on this document.

This document is governed by the 12 June 2023 W3C Process Document.

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 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 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, 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 recognized human rights at the core of the web platform [UDHR]. We can reinforce this approach by promoting ethical thinking across the web industry.

The principles in this document are deliberately unordered, and many are interconnected with each other. They are intended to be viewed holistically, rather than each 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 tradeoffs that may need to be carefully balanced. When proposals which 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).

1.1 Purpose

This is a statement of the ethical principles of the W3C community. Spec developers, authors and reviewers can use it to guide their thinking. In particular, the purpose of this document is to inform wide review of new charters, new specifications, and candidate additions to published recommendations, as well as to support work on other horizontal review documents, such as the Web Platform Design Principles, Self-Review Questionnaire: Security and Privacy, or other similar checklists and sets of principles.

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 to 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 ensure the requirements and views of marginalized communities and underrepresented groups are heard and respected. We will build new web technologies in a collaborative manner according to open processes (for example, the W3C process), and adhering to codes of conduct (such as the W3C Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct).

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, revealing private personal information (doxing), harassment, 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

People should not need a high level of technical literacy to use the web. Web platform technologies should behave consistently and intuitively. We will build internationalization and localization capabilities into our specifications and websites. We will accommodate people on low bandwidth networks and with low specification equipment. The web platform and the tools we use to create it must be accessible to people with disabilities, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities. Anyone should be able to meaningfully participate in the creation of specifications, user agents, and content, and the platform should enable a fully accessible end user experience.

2.5 Security and privacy are essential

When we add features to the web platform, we are making decisions that may change the ability of people 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 risks they are taking when they use the web.

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 information and assess the trustworthiness of its source.

Society relies on the integrity of public information. We have a responsibility to build web technologies to counter misinformation, and to maintain the integrity of information for public good. The public needs verifiable source and context information to recognize trustworthy web publishers and content. The concept of origin and its relationship with information sources are core to the web's security model.

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. We aim to reduce centralization in web architecture, minimizing 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

Web technologies may have overall positive environmental impacts as well as negative impacts, and these can change over time and vary geographically as both web and environmental technologies develop. We will endeavor not to do further harm to the environment when we introduce new technologies to the web, and keep in mind that people most affected by the environmental consequences of new technologies may not be those who benefit from the features introduced. This includes, but is not limited to, lowering carbon emissions by minimizing data storage and processing requirements, as well as reducing electronic waste by maximizing the lifespan of physical devices through backwards compatibility.

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, or only on particular hardware. We expect that content provided by accessing a URL should yield a thematically consistent experience when someone is accessing it from different devices. The existence of multiple interoperable implementations enables competition, and thus a variety of choices for web users.

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

People must be able to change web pages according to their needs. For example, people should be able to install style sheets, assistive browser extensions, and blockers of unwanted content or scripts or auto-played videos. We will build features and write specifications that respect peoples' agency, and will create user agents to represent those preferences on the web user's behalf.

A. References

A.1 Informative references

Web Platform Design Principles. Sangwhan Moon. W3C. 26 April 2023. W3C Working Group 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. 16 December 2021. W3C Working Group 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/