An Interview with Daniel Appelquist
A discussion about how the W3C Technical Architecture Group shepherds the Web.
This interview was recorded on the 10th of May 2019. During this interview Daniel Explains the responsibilities of the TAG ensuring the web platform is an environment that is ethical at it’s core, focusing on Truthfulness, Privacy & Security, Internationalisation, Accessibility and where can we be encoding human rights basically into the web’s core technology stack.
Links mentioned in the video:
- W3C TAG Twitter: https://twitter.com/w3ctag
- W3C TAG GitHub: https://github.com/w3c.tag
- Dan’s Article on a Code of Ethics for the Web
- Security and Privacy self check
Ada So what are you here to speak to me about today?
Dan I’m here to talk about the Web, and I’m here to talk about some of the work that we’re doing in the W3C and in particular in the TAG, the Technical Architecture Group, which is the group that I co-chair and I can talk a little bit about that.
It all sounds very dry and full of three letter acronyms and not very related to interesting things in the world especially at six-thirty [pm] on a Friday. But actually it’s stuff that makes me really passionate; makes me excited about the Web and about, you know, the future basically.
Ada So where does the TAG sit in the W3C? What’s its relationship to other groups?
Dan So I’m glad you asked that. OK so the W3C, most people I think watching this will know what the W3C is and will know at least what HTML is right. W3C is the standards group that works on standards that are related to web technologies. It was set up by Tim Berners-Lee in the mid 90s. It’s a consortium actually of initially three different academic institutions M.I.T. in the US, ERCIM in Europe and Keio university in Japan. It’s since also gained Beihang University in Beijing as part of that consortium so W3C as an organization is is a kind of amalgam of those of those things and it’s still very much functions as a standards development organization (an “SDO”) that works on things relating to the Web. The web platform. And to answer your question the TAG is a special group within W3C. Within W3C there are two groups that are that are kind of steering committees. One of them is the Technical Architecture Group (TAG) which is more focussing on web technologies and also the architecture of the Web. And the other is the Advisory Board which is also comprised of technical people but focuses more on how W3C operates where should they have meetings how should the funding happen how should they be doing how should they be looking for new members. What should the patent policy updates be? All that kind of stuff which is also extremely important for how W3C operates and how it functions.
Ada So you say it’s more of like a higher level view of what’s going on at the technical level within the W3C?
Dan Well the way that we’re functioning right now is we spend an awful lot of our time doing reviews of other people’s work and that’s by design. When in 2013 we kind of rebooted the TAG a little bit and we retooled it to specifically to function more as a design review body or as a space specification review body and we wanted to make it a place where other people who are developing specifications — like say you’re developing the geolocation specification — we wanted to make TAG a place where people who are developing that spec, the Group chair, the editor of the specification, people within the group, feel comfortable and feel like it’s going to add value to what they’re doing to come to the TAG to ask for a review. Does this fit into the web architecture? Is this using best practice as we know it. Are there other things that the TAG can offer? Can the TAG, because the TAG looks across all of these different technologies as they’re being developed, can we find similarities or things between one spec and another spec that could that could be that can be better utilized? You know it could be facilitating things a bit better. That’s something that we do and also we do stuff like that outside of W3C too so on occasion we talk to people in IETF for instance the HTTP working group. Increasingly we’re talking to people in the WhatWG group as well.
I won’t go into the kind of details of how W3C and WhatWG function together. But suffice to say you’ve got a lot of the same people that are working in both groups. In the TAG we tend to talk to a lot of people in what in WhatWG work streams as well because in reality they’re very closely aligned with W3C work.
Ada So what is that about the Technical Architecture Group you came to talk to me about today in particular?
Dan So first of all we tend to do a lot of developer outreach we tend to try to raise awareness of the work of the TAG not only because we want people to know what’s going through our pipeline we want to be a force for good in terms of demystifying standards work and also trying to encourage more developers to get involved in the standards work itself. And in some cases when we’re doing a what we call a design review, where somebody has developed a specification and they come to us for review, and maybe they’ve got maybe there’s an early version of this which is part of a very early build of Chrome or some other browser and they want us they want us to give feedback. That can also be a good time for developers to chime in. So our designer reviews are actually run on GitHub everything we do is in the public in the clear. We get these spec developers to come in and raise a design review issue with us. We have a template that automatically tells them all the information they need to fill out. It’s all done in the clear. Spec developers or spec authors come to us and they ask for a review they fill out a template. They can refer to their own issues because many of these specifications are being developed in other places in GitHub anyway. So they tell us: “we need a review we’re interested in your feedback on X Y Z. Here’s our explainer document about what the specification is and can you please review it?” So that that’s an ideal time for actually for developers as well to get to raise to give it some attention and to have a look as well, and maybe feedback on our GitHub issue. So even though in general we’re having a discussion in those issues between members of the TAG and usually people who are other people working in standards or the spec and or the spec authors themselves and the group chairs what have you. It’s also a good time for people to honestly to give us their feedback. So you know this would be really useful to me or this is not going to be helpful or this breaks X Y Z accessibility issue. Speaking of that, the other thing that we do in the TAG is we encourage people who are asking for a design review to look through certain checklists and certain information like: Have you looked at this from that accessibility standpoint? Have you looked at this from a security and privacy standpoint? Have you read our design our API design guidelines? Those are things that we’re looking to do more of.
Ada You’re looking to write more guidelines?
Dan We’re looking to encourage developers or spec developers when they’re requesting a tax review to be thinking about to already have gone through a lot of these guidelines and already have been thinking about these things. Because that’s what we’re going to be evaluating when we look at the specification we’re going to be looking at with these things in mind. So on that note one of the areas that we are we’re actually looking to expand that and I’m doing some work right now thinking about how we could be applying more ethical guidelines to the development of web technologies.
Ada What kind of ethical thinking Did you have in mind here?
Dan The W3C in many ways is already and is already seen as very strong on certain ethical principles. So things like internationalization accessibility and security and privacy which I already mentioned are kind of baked into the culture of W3C everybody in W3C sees those issues as important and not only important but essential that their accessibility is is a non optional feature.
Privacy increasingly is not optional as well.
And we have a security and privacy self check which kind of gives spec developers a lot of ideas about what they should be looking for in their spec when they’re evaluating it to understand. “Does this promote user privacy?” Right. So those are those are topics that are already kind of getting into this area of tech ethics.
What we’re proposing is to kind of or I should say this is work that I’m doing right now and you know with some positive support and positive feedback from TAG members as well as from other people in the W3C community where I presented this to the Advisory Committee about three or four weeks ago and had a pretty good response.
Besides privacy and security and internationalization and accessibility how else could we be thinking about web technologies to try to encourage the web to be a more ethical platform — to have the Web be a platform that has a societal benefit at its core? So that’s really kind of my focus right now. I’ve been thinking about this a lot how the web was originally designed to be a social benefit to people and it’s not just a place where you can buy more Pokemon dolls — even though that’s a very worthy cause, don’t get me wrong. It’s also a place that should be shielding your rights that should be a platform that encodes human rights at the core of the technology stack itself in some ways. And I’ve mentioned privacy and security, internationalization, and accessibility. Those are some very good examples.
We’re also looking at things like where else can we be encoding human rights into that core technology stack. So I wrote a blog post a little while back with some ideas of some new technical principles or ethical principles which we could then reduce into technical guidelines that we could actually, that the spec developers could actually be looking at or thinking about when they’re developing their specs. So things like there is one Web, right? The “one Web principle” which is actually not written down anywhere. We all kind of say we all like say oh there’s one Web. What is that? What does that mean?
It could mean I should be able to use any device any platform any screen size and I should get by and large a thematically consistent user experience I should be seeing the same content on BBC if I view it on my on my phone as I do if I view it on the desktop. In another way it also means the web should not be enabling regional or national borders.
We shouldn’t have a web where you can’t access certain content from certain locations.
That’s part of being one web, rather I should say the web platform itself should not enable that. It should not be encoded into the web platform to enable those kinds of regional divisions.
Ada So it’s the kind of thing that might happen due to government interference on a national scale.
Ada But it’s not something that we as web platform architects should enable.
Dan The hooks for that shouldn’t be built into the web itself. Right. And so I think that’s the important kind of difference there.
The web should not be a detriment to society. So one of the things that we that we thought about was when you know when adding a new technology to the Web you have to evaluate it for the potential harm it could do.
What could people be doing with this that could harm marginalized groups for instance or you know because those kinds of use cases or abuse cases are often not thought about when you have a bunch of technologists that sit in a room together that are coming from a privileged position and they aren’t thinking about maybe the needs of marginalized groups as much. So how can we make sure that we’re encoding that thinking and that we are thinking about those abuse cases potentially.
Dan I have more but…
Ada So this kind of makes me think, from having this discussion as two white people in the UK.
Ada So what if this is the W3C doing to encourage these discussions to not just be rooms full of white people having discussions about what is essentially a technology for the entire world.
Dan That’s an incredibly important thing to think about right now. And the other talk I gave actually at the W3C advisory committee meeting three weeks ago where I actually shared the stage with Leonie Watson was about how W3C as an organization should be encouraging more people from diverse backgrounds from marginalized communities from traditionally underrepresented groups and nationalities and locations to be participating in W3C. One way in which we’re trying to do that is by putting in place diversity scholarships.
So last year at the TPAC meeting, which is a Technical Plenary and Advisory Committee meeting which happens every year, it’s a W3C week where a bunch of groups meet together in one place WCC only usually does this once a year.
Unlike some other standards bodies which have set three or four or five meetings a year W3C usually only has one week like this per year and it can be extremely important for people to actually go to this to this TPAC week to see their colleagues to have those corridor conversations to get that kind of face to face time with people that enables them to have better understanding so that then when the next week when they’re on a conference call with somebody or a video call it makes it easier to get along basically and it makes it easier. It allows work to get to get done in a better way so it can be really important for people to be able to attend meetings like that. So one of the things that I actually suggested last year was to set up a diversity scholarship. We at Samsung put a thousand pounds forward. Some other people at other companies including Microsoft put money forward as well. We ended up being able to sponsor some number of delegates to come to TPAC. So we’re doing that again this year. Right. So that’s that’s one way.
Ada So what does the diversity scholarship cover. Is it a ticket to TPAC or travel?
Dan It covers all it covers a ticket. It also covers travel. That’s the idea. So it’s an all inclusive. And we’re doing it again this year as I said I hope that we’re going to have even more funds to spend W3C is administering it. [Find out more here.] We’re also taking that same approach to workshops. So another thing that W3C does is they run workshops. We have participated in and chaired a number of workshops. That was a workshop last year about permissions and consent which was really pretty important. There’s going to be another workshop coming up in July or on Web games we’ve participated in and hosted a number of workshops around immersive web WebVR but WebXR. So increasingly because we also want to bring those voices to workshops as well because workshops are where new work is spec’d out.
It’s where people present papers and out of that comes a or at or position statements and out of that discussion comes often a charter for a working group that can include what the deliverables that working group are going to be and what the dependencies of that work are. So it’s actually essential that we get those kinds of voices, underrepresented voices, in those workshops as well. And so we’re working with W3C to try and make that happen.
And again that would cover travel as well as workshops don’t generally have a fee but it would cover travel and travel as the main issue. There are other blocking issues of course many people don’t have the time to spend they can’t afford to take the time away from work to go spend time on these things. That’s another set of challenges and we need to figure out how to address those challenges.
I mean diversity scholarships isn’t the whole answer. We’ve also got to create a more inclusive environment within W3C and working with Tzviya [Siegman] who is on the [W3C Advisory Board] is working on a work stream which is that positive work environment task force where we’re really trying to [help]… W3C already have a code of conduct which is the code of professional conduct. It needs an update. It’s not up to date with the latest thinking around what codes of conduct need to look like and how specific they need to be how detailed they need to be and how proactive they need to be. And so we’re actually we’ve actually interacted on a few threads on GitHub. Again, that work is happening on GitHub. I think that work is headed in the right in the right direction because the general consensus seems to be that we need to update this and make it more in line with the best practices out there — things like the contributor covenant for instance that are really at the forefront of that. So that’s all about helping W3C to be more inclusive so that’s not a place that, once the people from the marginalized groups come to TPAC they don’t suddenly feel like: this is not for me. This is something you know — I’m not being listened to, I’m not being asked what my opinion is, This is a very off-putting the culture doesn’t culture doesn’t work for me. That’s the kind of stuff that we need to fix as well. There are two major things there.
Ada So the article you’re going through here this is the one you wrote?
Dan This is the one I wrote. Yeah. And it’s what it’s essentially what I presented it at W3C as well and what I got the feedback on so I’ve been not only have I’ve been getting feedback from people in the W3C community but I’ve also been reaching out to other communities and including academic ethicists too and people such as the Web Foundation.
So the Web Foundation is another group that was founded by Tim Berners-Lee and focuses more at the how shall I say it, the advocacy level the working with governments working with NGOs and more.
It’s more about opening the web and ensuring the life of the web at a societal level. There is a work stream going on there called the Contract for the Web. I participated in a call having to do with that earlier in the week. I was impressed by the commitment of the people that were involved in that call including many people from NGOs and big companies as well [including Google, who are chairing] that are that are really trying to flesh that out and to make that work.
So we need to get that feedback, bring it back into this work that we’re doing and then create a set of principles and I’m looking to do this in the next three or four weeks actually publish a real first draft so that we can then get some feedback on from the W3C community and we can kind of publish it as a TAG output.
Ada So what do you consider that being in this document.
Dan So besides things that I mentioned earlier about human rights I think there are certain things that I’ve talked about before like internationalization the web is for all people, low bandwidth networks that might also be part of that. People who are on small footprint devices on low bandwidth networks need to be included in the web so we need to make sure that when new web technologies are being developed that the people that are working on and take it take that into account take those issues into account security and privacy I already mentioned freedom of expression is a really tough one.
Dan You gave me some good feedback on this as well. I mean obviously one of the functions of the web is to be a communication tool. And to level the playing field of communication so that anybody can communicate with anybody else so that anybody can share information with anybody else. That is the primary social good that it was intended to do. Now in recent years frankly there has been a trend towards a lot of negative speech, speech that has negative impact like hate speech for instance. In some countries, hate speech is outlawed, in some you know there’s a real patchwork of regulatory around hate speech. So the web needs to enable freedom of expression but this should not be construed to mean that any service that is built on top of web technologies must enable unfettered speech in my view. That’s an interesting balance to maintain.
So we should not have people claiming that a specific I won’t mention any names but specific like broadcast services that they cannot ban certain people for being hate mongers because “free speech”. That’s not what “the Web enables freedom of expression” means.
But it does mean that at the core of the Web should be enabling this right to the right of freedom of expression which is a core human right.
Ada So like: free speech up until the point at which it starts to impinge on the freedoms of others.
Dan Exactly right. Because that needs. That needs to be subservient to the main goal of encoding human rights and of supporting human rights and having human rights at the core of the thinking. This is and this was an interesting topic that came up in the contract for the web discussion as well this is this is at the fore of everybody’s mind right now.
Truthfulness of information, the Web must enable you being able to research the truthiness of information in fact there’s some work going on in W3C right now “the credible web” [see also this article] work which is all about how can we put hooks into web technologies, into web standards, that could actually better enable people to research the truthfulness of information or perhaps better enable people to write extensions for your browser that could flag when you are seeing something when you’re reading something that actually is not true or that actually has been debunked or stuff like that.
Ada To make it a lot easier to find the source of the news article you are reading.
Dan Exactly. And that source is a key architectural principle for the web. So because the Web is built on top of many architectural layers and one of those architectural layers is origin and HTTP origin or the URL, any Web technology, the TAG has tended to push back on any new web technology or trend that diminishes the importance of the URL or diminishes or breaks the web security model which is based on origin. Because in that case you are muddying the waters. You might not actually know where the content comes from. I’ll give you a very specific example which is Google AMP.
Ada I was thinking the exact same thing.
Dan I mean one of the criticisms that members of the TAG had about Google AMP is this, I think they’re doing something to address this, but it still continues to be an issue is when you see an article when you when you make a search in your favourite search engine and you see an article and you’re reading it right there and you’re address bar says search-engine-dot-com. Right. But the actual source the article is evil-dot-com. Right. Or you know unreliable-dot-com then. But how do you know that besides what your browser is telling you about where this article comes from, where this is from. It becomes even more important if that piece of content that they’re viewing actually requests some kind of permissions like location permissions or the ability to send you push notifications or stuff like that because then you’re answering that question for Google-dot-com or for search-engine-dot-com. But you don’t know yet that you’ve actually answered it for content that’s coming from unreliable-dot-com.
Ada Would this also apply for like Facebook Instant Articles?
Dan It gets exactly the same thing. It’s fashionable to [bash] Google about this but it applies [in] the same way for Facebook Instant Articles. Apple News has the same issues. I mean anytime where people are trying to create an experience where it kind of muddies the water between what the real origin of the information is and what URL you’re seeing.
Dan Sustainability is another thing that we’re that we’re looking at like how can we make sure that the Web is green. How can we make sure that the Web is at least not adding huge amounts of power consumption to an already very power thirsty system. The web is not great when it comes to green technology. It consumes a lot of power. Some of that is out of scope for what we can do in W3C but is there something that we can think about could we be at least thinking about that when we’re at the design stage of new APIs: is this going to drive the GPU quite a lot on your phone? That’s going to make your you run out of battery quite easily.
Ada That’s a bit problematic for me as co-chair of the immersive web working group where we will eat up your camera your GPU you and will run everything on the device as hot as it will go.
Dan So that’s right. And that’s the tension there right. You want the people that are producing content for the immersive web, you want it to be 60 frames per second and immersive and that kind of thing. But you know you’re also running it on devices that first of all that they can they get very hot and then they shut down the minute they get too hot and you end up with like you’re watching like a you’re in a 3-D scene and then suddenly it just says you need to take the phone out of the headset now because it’s too hot.
But also it doesn’t match users expectations with regards to how long their phone battery should last.
You know that kind of thing. I guess when you’re thinking about phones in particular that are plugged into headsets that becomes more of an issue. But even so you know there’s a balance there in the balance. We have to make sure that we think that we put the hooks into the web platform so that service providers can enable that balance and can create content that is both green and provides a great user experience.
And by the way there is one other thing that we have in the web which we talk about a lot which is this order of constituents, a priority of constituents. And that’s something that’s often referred to by Web specification developers people in W3C. They talk about what’s the primary order of constituents order of priority of constituents is first and foremost the users and users’ needs, right? Actually user is a word and I’m trying to get out of my lexicon normally so people using the web and then secondary to that are things like the platform developer the browser so the browser developer or the web application developer themselves. And then you know at the very bottom of the list is theoretical purity. And that order of constituents is something that people talk about a lot but actually you know what. Doing some research I found it wasn’t it wasn’t ever written down in what I would call a stable place. It’s been written in a few different places but actually having it written down in a TAG document would probably give it more longevity. So that’s another area. That’s another ethical principle that probably we need to apply to the web. There are a few other things here.
Dan I think the web being inspectable is another key issue maybe. Where it’s important that, the Web was built, A lot of people who grew up on the web or learned development by learning the web learned it through “view source.” Now, with the current way that the web works, view source itself is not often very useful because you’re not getting…
Dan That’s right. And that allows you as a developer to say Oh that’s neat. Now I see how they did that. I can steal that and I can use it in my thing and that’s how that’s how web development works. That’s how developers operate and that really helps to just share knowledge and that kind of thing. But currently I would say the with the more likely thing that you are to do as a web developer is to bring up developer tools and inspect what’s going on and that inspect ability is now really important for not only is important for developers to learn what’s going on but it’s also important for say you are a web extension developer that wants to develop an extension that is telling people about the truthfulness of information that they might see on the Web. Well being able to inspect the Web sites of the 100 most popular news sources is pretty important in understanding what they’re doing under the covers so that you can build an extension that can then apply itself correctly to those to those Web pages. So it’s that inspectability that is a key factor that keeps the web honest. And it also is part of like not having any black boxes on the web.
Ada So keeping it machine readable as well as Human Readable?
Dan That’s right. That’s right. So those are some of the things that I’m thinking about right now. On my mind. Does it make sense?
Ada I think it makes sense. Yeah. Is there anything you want that people who watch that video to to take away from it? or to check out?
Dan Well keep tabs of what we’re doing in the TAG through our github .
Dan You can take a look at our github and our issues register in our design repos. I’ll leave a link to that alongside of this video. You can also keep tabs on us through our Twitter which is @w3ctag. We’re running developer events. Our next one is coming up in Reykjavík on the 21st of May. That’s going to be exciting. It’s first time I’ve ever been to Reykjavík and I’m hoping that we’re going to get some developers coming to our developer event there. [NB: They did. See below.] So if you live in Reykjavik or near Reykjavik then please come along. But keep track of where we’re meeting in the future too because more than likely we’re going to be having a developer event wherever we need.
Ada Fantastic. Would you say following the TAG through github is a good way to keep a track of a high level overview of all the exciting things happening in the Web?
Dan Definitely. I mean I think following us on Twitter is also going to be important. You know there’s a lot of stuff out our GitHub can get pretty chaotic so we try and cover the main points [on Twitter]. We also if you’re interested and you have a lot of time all of our minutes are posted on Github and not only that but when you take a look at our meetings repo you’ll be able to see the agenda for our coming meetings, our coming calls, and we actually publish a viewable live minutes URL where if you care to tune in during that time you can actually see our minutes being taken live. I mean we’re that serious about being kind of radically transparent in the TAG.
Dan So all our minutes are public you know public kind of stuff but yeah definitely the main work that we’re doing these days is in the design reviews repo and that’s in the issues where we’re having a lot of discussions.
Ada Cool. Well I think that’s everything.
Thank you so much for coming to speak with me today. It’s been it’s been really nice. And I’m sure I speak to you again soon.
Dan Yes. Awesome. Thank you!
Ada Bye Everyone!