In This Issue
The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about! We are posting selected articles each week to give readers time to savor the array of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays in this very special issue. Check the website every Monday!

Imperatives for the Web: Broad Societal Needs

Monday, March 8, 2021

Author: Judy Brewer and Jeffrey M. Jaffe

The World Wide Web has evolved into a complex mechanism for building dynamic applications that are used all over the globe for commerce, education, social networking, entertainment, and information sharing. Innovations to create the roadmap for future functions—immersive environments, privacy-protected advertising, seamless financial systems, intelligent sensor networks—continue unabated.

Societal Role of the Web

The web infrastructure must be equally available for all—yet the world struggles with the imperative to meet broad societal needs such as enhanced internationalization through the accommodation of different languages, security and privacy, and accessibility for individuals with disabilities. On the economic and policy fronts, governments grapple with the digital divide and with the tension between free speech and misinformation.

During the pandemic-driven pivot to remote interactions, the web has functioned as a platform for sustaining engagement across many aspects of life. Virtual meetings became the backbone of the business world, learning environments from kindergarten to postdoctoral research moved to online environments, medical appointments moved to privacy-enabled telehealth platforms, food was ordered over secure apps, unemployment filings proceeded online.

All of these interactions are supported by web technologies that are the outcome of decades of development by a community of technologists and web stakeholders dedicated to expanding the capabilities of an open and interoperable platform. At the same time, the necessary shift to virtual has accentuated disparities and gaps.

Misinformation must be addressed at both
the technical and
nontechnical levels.

Web investment typically optimizes feature/-function requirements in response to market demands, yet societal needs are an indispensable aspect of this virtual infrastructure and must therefore also be effectively addressed. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a community of over 400 member organizations and over 10,000 technical participants, has produced hundreds of technical standards that define the technical architecture for the web[1] and infuses innovative technologies in a scalable, distributed system that leverages internet connectivity.

Internationalization

The web supports a wide set of scripts and character sets, yet it has not completely escaped its roots in the English language and Roman alphabet. Ethnologue lists 7117 languages spoken today,[2] and 91 languages have over 10 million speakers.[3] Some have widely different writing systems, and these may be read from left to right, right to left, or vertically.

To appropriately represent the world’s myriad languages on the web, browsers must not only support diverse character sets but also appropriately render typographic features such as fonts, glyphs, annotations, formatting, line breaks, and justification. W3C has methodically identified and is addressing gaps in typography support across world languages.

Security and Privacy

Much has been written about online security and privacy,[4] so a summary is not needed here. However, several important perspectives are important to mention.

A secure infrastructure, free from privacy intrusions, is the sine qua non of an information infrastructure. Achieving this requires security enhancements at every level, including protocols, design of application programming interfaces, operating system design, software code reviews, and administrative controls that prevent social engineering attacks. While navigating mis-information and “fake news” as it relates to free speech is an important nontechnical issue, having an insecure infrastructure, where one person may impersonate another, exacerbates the problem. So mis-information must be addressed at both the technical and non-technical levels.

Technically, the areas of security and privacy have inherent difficulties. When engineers design a function—whether for a phone, a cloud service, or a website—their focus is on delivering the function, rather than on adversaries who may want to hijack that intended function and use it for a malicious purpose.

Designers must imagine the existence of adversaries who would compromise security for ill-gotten gain or invade privacy to learn more about an individual than that individual is comfortable with.  W3C addresses this by making available self-assessment questionnaires[5] and follow-up assistance to ensure that when new web standards are set, security and privacy considerations are addressed.

Accessibility

Accessibility has been an innovation driver for digital technologies that better meet diverse user needs and situations, and has become foundational to how digital technologies are developed.

As the web grows in complexity, so do the challenges of making it accessible for people with auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual disabilities. All technologies should be reviewed at the design stage to ensure that they support, and do not create barriers to, accessibility. W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines[6] have been adopted worldwide as the reference for developing accessible content and applications.

Creating and producing accessible content for modern websites give rise to challenges at different scales. Web content is produced by millions of people with low to no technical skills, so it is essential that authoring tools of the future be able to create accessible content by default, including for complex technologies such as virtual reality.

Testing of accessibility conformance must also be able to be done at scale. There is increased demand for both manual testing of usable accessibility and fully automated testing that can scale to the largest websites in the world. As the use of artificial intelligence in accessibility testing becomes more sophisticated, it can be used to simulate approaches currently used in manual testing, for instance by identifying common pathways that users follow when interacting with websites and prioritizing these pathways for automated conformance testing.

Ensuring a Future Infrastructure That Addresses Societal Needs

W3C has a formalized process[7] for generating standards that requires review by each of these “Web for All” aspects of our work, through the use of guidelines,[8] educational resources,[9] and review checklists[10] for the inspection of web standards under development. The strength of this foundation, as well as the continuity of a dedicated community and rigorous use of a replicable process, will determine how digital technologies evolve in the future.

Policymakers are recognizing this imperative, and helping fund research and development on fundamental elements of an infrastructure for the future. The moral and ethical need for the technology infrastructure to meet broad societal goals has never been greater. Gaps in the foundation must be addressed to be better prepared for the future. Key political and standardization fora need to do more to address these important societal needs.

 


[1]  W3C Technical Reports, www.w3.org/TR/

[2]  https://www.ethnologue.com/guides/how-many-languages

[3]  Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_languages_by_number_ of_native_speakers

4]  For example, The Bridge 49(3): Cybersecurity, fall 2019

[5]  https://www.w3.org/TR/security-privacy-questionnaire/

[6]  https://www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/wcag/

[7]  https://www.w3.org/Consortium/Process/

[8]  https://www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/

[9]  https://www.w3.org/WAI/Resources/

10]  Framework for Accessible Specification of Technologies, https://w3c.github.io/apa/fast/

About the Author:Judy Brewer is director of the Web Accessibility Initiative and Jeff Jaffe is CEO, both at the World Wide Web Consortium at MIT.