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World Wide Web Creator Tim Berners-Lee Leads W3C to Establish Online Payment Standards Including Bitcoin

Op-ed - World Wide Web Creator Tim Berners-Lee Leads W3C to Establish Online Payment Standards Including Bitcoin

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) started review of a draft Web Payments Working Group Charter. The Web Payments Working Group will launch by the end of September after the end of the review on September 15, start working on an overall Web payments architecture, and prepare key topics for discussion at the next Technical Plenary/Advisory Committee meeting (TPAC 2015) in October.

The W3C, led by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, is an international body that develops open standards to ensure the long-term growth of the Web. The Web Payments Interest Group acts as the overall coordinator at W3C of avision for Web Payments.

“The Web Payments Working Group is not creating any new digital payment schemes, but rather integrating existing and emerging schemes more efficiently and securely into Web applications,” states the W3C announcement. “A standardized message flow should make it easier to automate payments, which will improve the overall security and user experience of making payments on the Web.”

The Web Payments Interest Group recently updated its Web Payments Use Cases 1.0 working draft. The Group also published a FAQ with more information about the anticipated benefits of the future standards, a diagram illustrating the high-level message flow, and some examples of different Web payment approaches.

The W3C Web Payments documentation makes only sparse references to bitcoin and cryptocurrencies, which are only mentioned as possible options alongside other online payment means such as Google Wallet, Apple Pay, PayPal and iDEAL, a payment method that enables consumers to pay online through their own banks. The Use Cases draft includes a short section dedicated to cryptocurrency payments with bitcoin and ripple, with a scenario that outlines an ideal payment experience using bitcoin, or a bitcoin-like cryptocurrency.

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 include micropayments in Web protocols, but the idea hasn’t been implemented so far.

“In the late 1990s Berners-Lee tried to develop a micropayments system for the Web through the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C),” reported Walter Isaacson in his 2014 book “The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.” The idea was to devise a way to embed in a Web page the information needed to handle a small payment, which would allow different electronic wallet services to be created by banks or entrepreneurs. “It was never implemented, partly because of the changing complexity of banking regulations,” noted Isaacson.

The preparatory work of the Web Payments Interest Group and the forthcoming work of the Web Payments Working Group can be seen as gradual steps to implement Berners-Lee’s vision. However, it’s surprising that the official W3C documents produced to date make only incidental mentions of bitcoin, which is the only form of Internet money and “Internet native” payment system that exists, works, effectively implements one-click Internet payments, and is rapidly gaining recognition and partial acceptance from the financial system.

Isaacson reports that Andreessen mentioned bitcoin as a good model for standard Internet payment systems. “If I had a time machine and could go back to 1993, one thing I’d do for sure would be to build in bitcoin or some similar form of cryptocurrency,” Andreessen said.

A possible explanation for the more timid approach of the W3C is that the organization prefers to distance itself from the more controversial aspects of bitcoin, including the possibility of private and semi-anonymous transactions, and wait for “sanitized” versions of bitcoin.

Photo Southbank Centre / Flickr (CC)