What Benevolent Dictator?

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From time to time I hear people refer to Tim Berners-Lee as a "benevolent dictator." In most cases they utter the phrase through a smile, but I find the phrase distasteful. It is also inaccurate.

The W3C process has evolved to reduce the central role of the Director. Without this evolution, W3C would not have been able to reach its current work capacity. Steve Bratt (the CEO) has taken on much of the management of the process. For Web architecture issues, the Technical Architecture Group (TAG) was chartered in 2001 to document principles of Web architecture and help resolve issues about Web architecture inside and outside W3C. A full-time staff of around 70 people help support the Director and CEO. The reality is that W3C has intentionally distributed decision-making responsibility to a number of parties in order to grow.

Most importantly, most technical decision-making happens in the groups themselves. W3C operates as a decentralized community of collaborating groups. They function independently, but not in a vacuum. In a presentation to the W3C Advisory Committee in April of this year, Tim wrote: "Each group, whether or not in W3C, has a duty to act as a responsible peer to other groups, recognize it is part of a larger community, and to spawn independent subgroups to do cleanly defined parts of the work when the task is big." By coordinating, groups benefit through reviews of specifications, shared understanding with other communities, and useful architectural consistency.

What role does the Director have regarding group decisions? According to the process document, "[t]he Director is the lead technical architect at W3C and as such, is responsible for assessing consensus within W3C for architectural choices, publication of technical reports, and new Activities." When there is disagreement over a group decision, the Director and CEO assess whether the group has duly considered the minority views and whether the technical reasoning behind the decision is sound. In short: has the group done its job? When presented with a Formal Objection, the Director makes an informed decision, siding at times with the majority, and at other times with the dissenter.

Members not satisfied with a Director decision can appeal it. It only takes 5% of the Membership to overrule Tim, hardly a dictatorship.

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