Our ethics drive the architecture of the web

Ancient fragment of the Hippocratic oath on papyrus

Fragment of the Hippocratic oath. This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

The TAG publishes ethical principles for spec authors and platform developers.

A big part of our job as the TAG is to help spec authors with their ideas for a new feature on the web. We help them think about things like how their proposal could work with other features, whether it might have unintended consequences, and how they can learn from someone else’s similar experience.

A lot of our advice in these design reviews comes from our personal experiences, but we also try to point to existing documents to help explain.

The more we’ve talked about the logic under our advice, the more we’ve realized how much these ethical principles are at the heart of how the web works — and therefore is some of our most important advice to spec authors. And they hadn’t been written down, which is why we wrote this finding, W3C TAG Ethical Web Principles.

The principles themselves aren’t technical, but they have substantial technical implications. And we have tried to make those implications clear. For example:

Principle: The web is for all people

Explanation: We will build internationalization and localization capabilities into our specs and websites. We must make our websites accessible for people with disabilities. Accessibility involves a wide range of disabilities, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities. We must build for users on low bandwidth networks and low specification equipment.

This work was sparked by this blog post by our co-chair Dan Appelquist, reacting to what he called “[Our] anxiety about the current state of the world and the role the web has unwitting played in making it that way. The misuse of social media to control public opinion through the spread of propaganda, bot-enabled harassment campaigns and over-reliance on biased and simplistic algorithms for content promotion are some of the unexpected consequences of a world wide ‘web of information nodes in which the user can browse at will.’”

In that light, we thought it was especially important to highlight our ethical responsibilities as web and platform developers. This finding brings together those traditions and philosophies that underpin how the web works.

As always, our docs are evolving and we welcome feedback and pull requests.