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The W3C and MIT Media Lab Host First ‘Blockchain and the Web’ Workshop

In June Bitcoin Magazine covered the first Decentralized Web Summit, a gathering of developers striving to make the web open, secure and free of censorship by distributing data, processing and hosting across millions of computers around the world, with no centralized control.

The Summit was organized by Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, and Tim Berners-Lee, the “father of the web” and the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The organizers want to build a new phase for the web, based on next-generation decentralized systems inspired by the P2P technology that powers file-sharing networks and the distributed ledger technology ‒ the blockchain ‒ that powers digital currencies such as bitcoin.

Internet pioneers such as Ted Nelson, Marc Andreessen and Berners-Lee himself, thought that the internet should have a built-in framework for micropayments. Berners-Lee tried to develop a micropayments system for the web through the W3C in the ‘90s, but the idea so far hasn’t been implemented. 

In 2015 the W3C restarted its work on an overall web payments architecture and produced initial drafts, which make only incidental mentions of Bitcoin and distributed ledger technologies. However, it’s difficult to escape the fact that digital currencies based on distributed ledgers are the only form of internet-native payment system that exists, works and effectively implements one-click payments. It’s also worth noting that, besides micropayments, distributed ledgers show potential for contributing to many other aspects of next-generation, decentralized web technology.

Now, it appears that the W3C intends to become more involved with distributed ledger technology as a foundational element of tomorrow’s web. On June 29 and 30, the W3C held a workshop, titled “Blockchains and the Web,” for blockchain and web experts to discuss what needs to happen to integrate blockchains into the web.

The workshop was held at MIT Media Lab, an organization that seems to be assuming a de-facto leadership role in the technical development of Bitcoin, and perhaps in next-generation web technology as well. It’s too early, though, to think of firm W3C standards for interoperable distributed ledgers.

“This is an exploratory workshop; our goal is to start the conversation in the context of features for the web and to review critical questions for incubation,” cautions the workshop announcement. “We do not foresee immediate standardization work.”

In line with this exploratory approach, the workshop announcement is essentially a list of preliminary questions, such as: What emerging capabilities could blockchains enable for the Web, such as distributed identity management? With the proliferation of different approaches and technology stacks (such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and Hyperledger), is there a need for interchange formats, protocols or APIs to share transaction data across services and stacks or between public and private networks? What timelines make sense for looking at standardization for web-centric aspects of blockchain technologies? What is the relationship to payments, including W3C's Web Payments work?

“Blockchains and distributed ledgers have captured the imagination of innovators across many industries and government, opening up new capabilities for payments, smart contracts, identity, deeds, patents, correspondence and anything a user might want to have as a verifiable claim on the public record,” noted the W3C. “To complement W3C's work on Web Payments, we are seeking clear direction on what capabilities blockchains can bring to the web, and what changes are needed to the Web Platform technology stack in order to enable and extend blockchains. The goal of this workshop is to determine opportunities and timelines for blockchain standardization.”

“More than 100 of the best and brightest from the standards and blockchain worlds met to discuss potential web standards opportunities for blockchain tech,” says Daniel Buchner, a web platform manager at Microsoft. “The workshop was a great opportunity to start an important discussion about systems that could move the web far beyond what it is today.”

Recently, Bitcoin Magazine reported that Microsoft is working on a blockchain-based identity system that could allow people, products, apps and services to interoperate across blockchains, cloud providers and organizations. “There were many areas of standardization discussed that touched on blockchain-based identity systems, but perhaps the most specific, actionable area of standardization the group identified was extension of the existing Web Auth spec to include the APIs, features and flows necessary to enable blockchain-based identity authentication in browsers,” adds Buchner, noting that other organizations from the W3C workshop will participate in the project.

A CIO post titled “Highlights from the W3C blockchain workshop at MIT” notes that the workshop was mainly focused on identity systems, blockchain primitives and APIs (browser-like features, wallets, a consensus protocols, standard data formats), licensing of IP, assets and services. The post includes a list of contributions and ideas that emerged from the workshop, illustrated by appealing diagrams developed by Blockstream.

Though formal standards always lag behind practical innovation and de-facto standards, the growing involvement of the W3C ‒ the main web standardization body ‒ in the whole range of web applications of distributed ledger technology seems a positive trend.

Photo Knight Foundation / Creative Commons

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