Web standards are a set of formal standards and technical specifications for the World Wide Web. They ensure that content is accessible across devices and configurations, and therefore provide the core rules for developing websites.
The main content and applications standards include: HyperText Markup Language (HTML), a plain text language which makes use of tags to define the structure of documents; eXtensible Markup Language (XML), another type of language used for sharing structured information; Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), a language used in conjunction with HTML to control the presentation of web pages; and, eXtensible HTML (XHTML), an extended version of HTML which uses stricter rules.
Why were web standards required? By the late 1980s, the battle of network standards was over. TCP/IP gradually became the main network protocol, marginalising other standards. While the Internet facilitated normal communication between a variety of networks via TCP/IP (see Technical Standards), the system still lacked common applications standards.
A solution was developed by Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, consisting of a new standard for sharing information over the Internet called Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). Content displayed on the Internet first had to be organised according to HTML standards. HTML, as the basis of the web, paved the way for the Internet’s exponential growth.
Since its first version, HTML has been constantly upgraded with new features. The growing relevance of the Internet has put the question of the standardisation of HTML into focus. This was particularly relevant during the Browser Wars between Netscape and Microsoft, when each company tried to strengthen its market position by influencing HTML standards. While basic HTML only handled text and photos, newer Internet applications required more sophisticated technologies for managing databases, videos, and animation. Such a variety of applications required considerable standardisation efforts in order to ensure that Internet content could be properly viewed by the majority of Internet browsers.
Application standardisation entered a new phase with the emergence of XML, which provided greater flexibility in the setting of standards for Internet content. New sets of XML standards were also being introduced, such as the standard for the distribution of wireless content called Wireless Markup Language (WML).
Setting web standards
The main web standard-setting institution is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), headed by Tim Berners-Lee. Standards are developed through an elaborate process that aims to promote consensus, fairness, public accountability, and quality. At the end of the process, standards are published in the form of recommendations.
When it comes to an open approach to standards development, W3C – in addition to other bodies such as the IEEE, the IETF, the IAB, and the Internet Society – subscribes to the OpenStand initiative, an affirmation of principles that encourages the development of open and global market-driven standards.
W3C standards define an open platform for the development of applications, which enables developers to build rich interactive experiences. W3C states that ‘although the boundaries of the platform continues to evolve, industry leaders speak nearly in unison about how HTML5 will be the cornerstone for this platform’.
It is interesting to note that in spite of its high relevance to the Internet, the W3C has not attracted much attention in the debate on Internet governance thus far.
Another institution involved in standards is the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA), an association of companies whose main role is to develop standards and technical reports.
As with technical standards, the possible gap in the development of web standards is related to the coverage of non-technical aspects (e.g. human rights, competition policy, and security). Web standards have an even stronger impact on these non-technical aspects since they shape the ways in which the Internet is accessed and used more than technical standards.
Web standards for accessibility of persons with disabilities
‘The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect. The Web is fundamentally designed to work for all people, whatever their hardware, software, language, location, or ability.’ - Tim Berners-Lee
The emergence of the Internet created a great opportunity for people from all across the globe to connect on a new level. The main idea of the web was to leave no one behind and to include persons with disabilities. In order to do this and create a more inclusive Internet, W3C established the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The W3C WAI regularly works on updating and developing web standards to fulfill this mission. Part of this effort includes creating Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), ‘developed through the W3C process in cooperation with individuals and organizations around the world’. The latest edition of WCAG, WCAG 2.1, has set the standard for the future accessibility of websites and web applications.
WCAG are also being developed for mobile technology producers. Mobile technology in this sense includes: tablets, household devices, car dashboards, and wearable devices (such as smart watches), among others.
Access to web applications for persons with disabilities is mandatory in some states. The US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, issued guidelines on how public web services should look in order to comply with this request.