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 the document; 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.
Web standards in context
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 CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, consisting of a new standard for sharing information over the Internet, called HTML. Content displayed on the Internet first had to be organised according to HTML standards. HTML, as the basis of the World Wide 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, video, 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 been 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 which 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 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), and the Internet Society – subscribes to the Open Stand 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 continue 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, so far, the W3C has not attracted much attention in the debate on Internet governance.
Other institutions involved in standards include the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA), an association of companies whose main role is to develop Standards and Technical Reports.
Possible gaps in dealing with web standards
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, more so than technical standards, they shape the ways in which the Internet is accessed and used.