Web consortium weighs work on blockchain standards

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The World Wide Web Consortium, the non-profit whose members develop the interoperable standards that keep the internet open and accessible, is looking at possible standards for blockchain — the technology underlying bitcoin and other digital currencies.

In a report published last week, the consortium — founded by Tim Berners-Lee, the author of HTML and the man seen by many as the inventor of the web — announced the formation of a new Blockchain Community Group. The group will evaluate uses for the technology beyond currencies and payment systems, and study possible standards that would ensure the interoperability of different blockchain implementations.

“Blockchains are useful for many things that go beyond payment,” W3C’s Policy Counsel Wendy Seltzer told FedScoop. Distributed ledgers, as the technology is more properly known, can be used in a range of applications from identity verification, through signatures and data provenance, to digital asset tracking, she said.

“The question for standardization is: Is there enough consensus around the way [these applications] should work and is the technology developed enough around how they might be used that we can start to … agree on a standardized vocabulary.”

Blockchain is a technology using encryption and distributed computing power to create a constantly upgraded and cryptographically secure record — distributed among all its participants. Because they create an unforgeable record, distributed ledgers have all kinds of applications in transactions that require verification.

Interoperable standards would ensure, for instance, that particular functions of one blockchain could be understood and replicated by others.

[Read more: Big banks join UBS on blockchain plan]

One example of a possible future standard is an implementation called Chainpoint, explained Doug Schepers, the technical lead at a recent W3C workshop on the blockchain.

Chainpoint was developed by a private company, but “they made it publicly available and it’s seen some adoption by other companies, and that’s usually a pretty good indicator that something might be ready for standardization.”

“Essentially, it’s a digital receipt that … verifies the the existence of a document at a particular point in time” and provides a cryptographic guarantee that it hasn’t been tampered with or altered since, he said.

Chainpoint was designed for use on the bitcoin blockchain, but Schepers said it could easily be used on any distributed ledger, and he called it “a good example of a very simple, low-level specification that we could do that would help move interoperability forward.”

“If we have enough of those things that would really help move along blockchain technology,” Schepers said, the consortium will move to the next stage, known as the recommendation track, when members and invited experts start drafting possible standards.

“We’re seeing if W3C has a role to play in doing that,” he said.

The key metric in such a decision is stakeholder buy-in, he said. “The question is: Do we have enough stakeholders in the natural [blockchain] ecosystem who are willing to commit the resources [to developing the standards] and commit to implementation?” he said.

W3C has developed many standards and specifications in very wide use on the web today, such as HTML5, the latest version of the language in which websites are coded, and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 — that provide a single shared and technology-neutral standard for making web content more accessible to people with disabilities.

There are several W3C community groups with an interest in blockchain technology, and the Blockchain Community Group will help coordinate their activities, Schepers explained in a blog post.

“By the end of the year,” he wrote, “we hope to have laid the groundwork for possible candidates for formal standardization.”

But Seltzer was cautious about any timeline. “Everything in tech takes longer than initially predicted,” she said.

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blockchain, Cybersecurity, identity management, standards, Tech, W3C