House Antitrust Report Highlights Unequal Power Dynamics At The W3C

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A lop-sided power dynamic.

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The House’s antitrust report on big tech, released last week, described the lopsided power dynamic at the W3C, where several “market participants” interviewed by the subcommittee said that they felt “bullied” by Google.

The report claims that Google uses Chrome’s dominance in the browser market to “effectively set standards for the industry.”

First, Chrome has a nearly 70% share of the browser market, so when Chrome engineers build a new feature without using the standard-setting process of consensus through the W3C, smaller browsers and developers must scramble to build to these specifications or risk breaking the user experience.

By the same token, Google has more representatives within the W3C’s Platform Incubator Community Group, a venue for proposing and discussing new web platform features. Google has roughly eight times as many members – 106 – than Microsoft, which is the second largest stakeholder represented.

To be fair, Microsoft, which can ostensibly afford to send as many reps as it wants, has chosen to focus more on its operating system, Office software apps and even, more recently, its gaming division, rather than on developing web standards, said Joshua Koran, head of Zeta Innovation Labs.

As one market participant who spoke with House antitrust subcommittee staffers for the report said: “Though standards bodies like the W3C give the impression of being a place where browser vendors collaborate to improve the web platform, in reality, Google’s monopoly position and aggressive rate of shipping non-standard features frequently reduce standards bodies to codifying web features and decisions Google has already made.”

Members of the W3C’s Improving Web Advertising Business Group (IWABG) – the group where ad tech companies provide feedback on Google’s Privacy Sandbox proposals – struggle with a similar imbalance.

Although each member organization is only allowed one vote, companies can send as many representatives as they can afford to participate in W3C groups, said Koran, an active member of the IWABG.

Some IWABG members were so concerned that smaller companies are drowned out by Google that they addressed this issue in a letter to the W3C’s Advisory Board in August, stating that “a disparity in organizational size now threatens” the W3C’s governance process, which is meant to represent all web stakeholders equally.

Out of 258 members in the IWABG, Google has 33 representatives. By comparison, Microsoft sends four people, Apple sends three and Mozilla doesn’t send any.

The House report also questions “whether the standards Google chooses to introduce are ultimately designed primarily to serve Google’s interests,” since Google can make moves ostensibly for privacy protection reasons but still have access to user data collected from elsewhere within its own ecosystem.

The fact that the House report calls this out at all is significant, said James Rosewell, CEO and co-founder of 51Degrees.

Rosewell is a member of the IWABG and was a signatory on the letter sent to the W3C Advisory Board in August. He’s also working on establishing a new W3C interest group whose purpose would be to identify and handle the unintended consequences of web standard proposals before they’re developed and deployed.

“This is not just a niche thing that a bunch of tech companies are whingeing about – this is a real issue of genuine concern to society,” Rosewell said. “If you’re being ‘bullied,’ which is the word used in the House report, that creates stress, difficulty – and it’s not an environment that lends itself to open discussion.”