Some thoughts for Document Freedom Day 2008.
Back a few weeks ago in Geneva, OpenForum Europe hosted an evening of mini-talks and a discussion panel with various well-known personalities in our field: Vint Cerf, Bob Sutor, Andy Updegrove and Håkon Lie. I wasn’t able to comment on the event at the time, due to my self-imposed blog silence that week, but I’d like to take the opportunity today to carry forward one of the topics discussed then.
I’d like to take as my launching point the theme of Andy Updegrove’s talk, which was “Civil ICT Standards”. Andy treats this subject more fully on his blog, and also speaks to the topic in his taped interview with Groklaw’s Sean Daly.
Thus spake Updegrove:
But as the world becomes more interconnected, more virtual, and more dependent on ICT, public policy relating to ICT will become as important, if not more, than existing policies that relate to freedom of travel (often now being replaced by virtual experiences), freedom of speech (increasingly expressed on line), freedom of access (affordable broadband or otherwise), and freedom to create (open versus closed systems, the ability to create mashups under Creative Commons licenses, and so on.
This is where standards enter the picture, because standards are where policy and technology touch at the most intimate level.
Much as a constitution establishes and balances the basic rights of an individual in civil society, standards codify the points where proprietary technologies touch each other, and where the passage of information is negotiated.
In this way, standards can protect – or not – the rights of the individual to fully participate in the highly technical environment into which the world is now evolving. Among other rights, standards can guarantee:
- That any citizen can use any product or service, proprietary or open, that she desires when interacting with her government.
- That any citizen can use any product or service when interacting with any other citizen, and to exercise every civil right.
- That any entrepreneur can have equal access to marketplace opportunities at the technical level, independent of the market power of existing incumbents.
- That any person, advantaged or disadvantaged, and anywhere in the world, can have equal access to the Internet and the Web in the most available and inexpensive method possible.
- That any owner of data can have the freedom to create, store, and move that data anywhere, any time, throughout her lifetime, without risk of capture, abandonment or loss due to dependence upon a single vendor.
Let us call these “Civil ICT Rights,” and pause a moment to ask: what will life be like in the future if Civil ICT Rights are not recognized and protected, as paper and other fixed media disappear, as information becomes available exclusively on line, and as history itself becomes hostage to technology?
This rings true to me. Technology, computer technology in particular, now permeates our lives. We interact with it daily, from the moment the internet-radio alarm clock goes off, until days end, when we check our email “one last time” before going to bed.
Similarly, the standards that define the interfaces between these devices are also of increasing importance. There was once a time when standards dealt only with the “infrastructure”, the stuff in the walls and under the panel floor, or in that funny little locked door off the hallway, with all the cables and flashing lights, where strange men with clipboards would occasionally emerge, accompanied by a poof of cold air and the buzzing of machines.
But today, the technology and the standards that mediate the technology are now directly in front of your face. Think MP3 players. Think DVD’s. Think DRM. Think cellular phones. Think web pages. Think encryption. Think privacy. Think documents. Think documents-privacy-security-DRM, your data and what you are allowed to do with it, and what others are allowed to do with it, and whether you control any bit of this in this mad world of ours.
Between you and the tasks that want to do today stands technology and the standards that mediate that technology. Standards are damn important.
Now, although the reach of technology and ICT standards has progressed over the years, the organizations and the processes that create these standards have not always kept up. In many cases standardization remains the creature of big industry with little or no consumer input. It is back-room discussions, where companies connive to see how many patents of their own portfolio they can encumber the standard with. A successful standard is one where no major company is left hungry. Consensus means everyone at the table has been fed. That is the traditional world of technology standards. It brings to mind the famous line from Adam Smith:
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices — The Wealth of Nations (I.x.c.27)
Luckily, there is some hope. The proponents of “open standards” seek standards based on principles of open participation, consensus decision making, non-profit stewardship, royalty-free IP, and free access to standards. The web itself, with the underlying network protocol stack, HTML family of formats with DOM and scripting API’s is a shining example of what open standards can accomplish. Tim Berners-Lee says it best, in his FAQ’s:
Q: Do you have had mixed emotions about “cashing in” on the Web?
A: Not really. It was simply that had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. The decision to make the Web an open system was necessary for it to be universal. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.
But it is important to realize that “control” mechanisms in standards go well beyond IP and organization issues. There are other important factors at play, and we need to address these as well. Knut Blind discusses some of these issues a section called “Anti-Competitive Effects of Standards” from his The Economics of Standards (2004).
The negative impact of standards for competition are mostly caused by a biased endowment with resources available for the standardization process itself. Therefor, even when the consensus rule is applied, dominant large companies are able to manipulate the outcomes of the process, the specification of the standard, into a direction which leads to skewed distribution of benefits or costs in favor of their interests.
In other words, participation in standardization activities is time consuming and expensive, and large companies are much more able to make this kind of commitment than small companies, organizations or individuals. So ,large companies rule the world.
This is especially true with standardization at the international level, where decisions are often made at meetings in very expensive international locations. JTC1 is still discussing what technologies would be required to allow participation in meetings without travel. (Hint — its called a “telephone”) To put this in perspective, my week in Geneva cost $3687.52. I flew coach, ate most of my meals on the cheap, often just grabbing hors d’oeuvres at receptions, and I received negotiated IBM corporate rates for air and hotel. This is one JTC1 meeting. What if I wanted to be really active? Add in two SC34 Plenary meeting (Norway/Kyoto). Add in JTC1 Plenary meetings. Add in US NB meetings. Add in US NB membership fees, consortium fees, conferences, etc. This starts adding up, around $40,000/year to participate actively in tech standards, and this doesn’t include the cost of my time.
How many small companies are going to pay this amount? How many non-profit organizations? How many individuals? Not many.
But in spite of the expense, in spite of the large company bias of the international standardization system, I saw reason for hope at the Geneva BRM. I saw younger participants, with fire in their bellies. I saw FOSS supports from developing countries. I saw Linux on laptops. I saw participants from FOSSFA, SIUG, EFFI, ODF Alliance Brazil, COSS, etc. They joined their NB’s, participated in their NB debates and were appointed to represent their countries in the BRM.
Sure, it is only a foot in the door. One in five BRM participants were Microsoft employees. But it was a hopeful sign. We’ve planted the seed. We must plant more. And we must see that they grow.
Strength in standards participation comes with time, with participation, with networking, with learning the rules (written and unwritten) learning from others, etc. Just as we have FOSS experts in the software engineering, in law, in business, in training/education, we also need experts in standardization. Certainly the bread and butter participation will be from individual engineers, participating for the duration of a particular proposal or group of proposals. But we also need the institutional linchpin participants, those who have taken on leadership positions within standards organizations, and whose influence is broad and deep.
FOSS also needs a standards agenda. In a world of patent encumbered standards controlling the central networks, open source software dies, and dies quickly. We must protect and grow the open standards, for without them we cease to exist.
What standards are important? Which demand FOSS representation? Remember just a few weeks ago, when there was a lot of concern about how the DIS 29500 BRM added explicit mention of the patent-encumbered MP3 standard, but failed to mention Ogg Vorbis at all? Although I sympathize with this concern, the fact is the BRM could not have added Ogg Vorbis at all, because it is not a standard. Are we willing to do more than lament about this? I tell you that if Ogg Vorbis had been an ISO standard it would have been explicitly added to OOXML at the BRM. Are we willing to do something about it?
What are the standards critical to FOSS, and what are we doing about it? What standards, existing or potential, should we be focusing on? I suggest the following for a start:
- Ogg Vorbis
- Ogg Theora
- PNG, ISO/IEC 15948
- ODF, ISO/IEC 26300
- PDF, ISO 3200
- Linux Standard Base (LSB), ISO/IEC 23360
- Most of the W3C Recommendations
- Most of the IETF RFC’s
I’m sure you can suggest many others.
Let’s put it all together. Some ICT standards directly impact what we can do with our data and our digital lives. These are the Civil ICT Standards. We need to ensure that these standards remain open standards, so anyone can implement them freely. However, the standardization system, both at the national and international levels is biased in favor of those large corporations best able to afford dedicated staff to work within those organizations and develop personal effectiveness and influence in the process. Showing up once a year is not going to work. If FOSS is going to maintain any level of influence in formal standardization world, especially at the high-stakes international level, it needs to find a way to identify, nurture and support participation of “Open Standards Activists”. The GNOME Foundation’s joining of Ecma, or KDE’s membership in OASIS are examples how this could work. Umbrella organizations like Digistan also are critical and can be a nucleus for standards activists. But what about taking this to the next level, to NB membership? Another example is the Linux Foundation’s Travel Fund, designed to sponsor attendance of FOSS developers at technical conferences. Imagine what could be done with a similar fund for attendance at standards meetings?
So that is my challenge to you on this first Document Freedom Day. We’re near the end of what promises to be one of many battles. The virtual networks of the future are just as lucrative as the railroad and telephone networks of the last century were. These include the network of compatible audio formats, or the network of IM users using a compatible protocol, or the network of users using a single open document format. If FOSS projects and organizations want to secure the value for their users that comes from being part of these networks, then FOSS projects must encourage the use of open standards, and must also encourage and nurture new talent for the next generation of open standards activists.
I’m looking forward to the day, soon, when I can search Google for “open standards activist” and not find a paid Microsoft shill among the listings on the first page.