The Darker Side of Standards

Laurent Liscia, OASIS

Despite the title, this piece begins with a ray of light—with the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) community, which most of you are aware of and many of you participate in. As the Executive Director of OASIS, I’m often asked which standards I’m most proud of, and I always answer DITA (among others). That’s because there are very few things that annoy me more in life than poor manuals and technical documentation, and DITA is making the world a better place in that regard. And I literally mean the world: from Beijing to Frankfurt.

The reason OASIS is recognized globally is thanks to standards like DITA, and, because we are a member-driven standards organization, what benefits us directly benefits our members, whether they are consultants or organizations. Which is why I’m on the road so often: to make sure that our standards community remains vibrant and that the standards you produce get the attention they deserve.

Before we dive into the darker and more personal aspects of this story, I need to give you some background on the political intrigue unfolding in Europe around standardization, and, at the risk of sounding cynical, I will first share the observation that much of the moral proclamations I hear about standards (things like: “international standards threaten our sovereignty as a nation”, which usually comes from the same people that believe human rights are an unpalatable standard, or “market-driven standards are too risky for the public sector”) are rooted in economics and economics alone. Europe is no exception.

Roughly speaking, the standards world is split into de jure (Latin for: derived from law) and de facto organizations. De jure organizations are made up of national delegations and get most of their funding from public coffers and the sale of their published standards. At the very top of the de jure organizations sits the Olympic triad: ISO, IEC (which focuses on electrical and engineering matters) and ITU-T (mostly telecom standards). ISO and IEC have formed a Joint Technical Committee called JTC1 that examines de facto ICT (Informaton and Communications Technology) standards for adoption into ISO or IEC under a new name but identical content. OASIS has “Publicly Available Specification” (PAS) standard status in JTC1. PAS status allows us to introduce OASIS Standards at the highest de jure level on a regular basis. In the content management segment, this may occur with DITA and also with Content Management Interoperability Services (CMIS).

If you thought this was not complicated enough, it gets even more byzantine. Most countries have their own National Standards Bodies–members of ISO. Think of ANSI in the US, CNIS and CESI in China, AFNOR in France, DIN in Germany, and so on. Some regional blocs, such as Europe, have supra-national standards bodies. Europe has three de jure standards organizations (ESOs): CEN, CEN-Elec and ETSI. As you guessed, they map exactly to ISO, IEC and ITU-T, receive their funding from the European Commission and Parliament, and sell their standards.

For years now, the ESOs have pushed back on ICT standards that come up from de facto organizations like OASIS. The reasoning is that ICT standards are not different from any other standard; that market-driven standards may not meet the needs of regulatory agencies and their constituency: the general public; worse, market-driven standards may bypass consumer rights since consumers are not represented in thede facto standardization process. For as many years, OASIS and other organizations such as the W3C have been pushing back on this reasoning. ICT standards are in fact different from other standards because the technology lifecycle is much shorter and requires a lighter process. The end-users, including governments and consumer advocates, are either represented in the process or free to join whenever they desire. The OASIS process is transparent and democratic; it is in line with the World Trade Organization’s criteria for openness.

OASIS is not a lobby: unlike our naysayers, we don’t get to cut deals in the secret corridors of power. Nonetheless, viewpoints that fly in the face of job creation and the logic of the new economy are steadily losing ground. We have market economics on our side.

Of course, politics have very little to do with reason, meaning I and other OASIS staff and members have been on the road tirelessly meeting every objection with hard, unimpeachable facts, with some success.

Three years ago, I was invited to Copenhagen to discuss the Open Document Format (ODF). The Danish government was about to mandate ODF in government, the decision was seen as quite controversial, and I was asked to represent OASIS in the matter. I know: who’s crazy enough to accept that kind of loaded assignment?

The gathering turned out to be every bit as contentious as I had expected. Somehow I managed to dodge every political bullet until someone said, “How do you feel about the fact that Morten Messerschmidt supports ODF?”
“I’m not familiar with his position, can you please elaborate?”

I was told that the Morten Messerschmidt, a candidate for the European Parliament and his political party, Dansk Folkeparti, was on a crusade against “hegemonic software companies from abroad” and that standards could provide alternative, homegrown solutions. I said I was astonished at how good politicians were at making everything about their worldview. I also pointed out the implicit confusion between standards and Open Source. Standards are implemented in software. They do not provide alternatives to commercial packages—that’s what Open Source does.

What I didn’t say was that the ESOs official resistance to OASIS Standards is based on the exact same argument used by Messerschmidt: We are too “US-centric,” and our standards are driven by American software companies or worse, soulless multinationals—even though half of our membership is outside the United States and more than half are small and medium-sized businesses and individuals. The rhetoric of origin does not bother with such details.

Fast forward to 2011: in the European Commission Vision for a new Standardization Framework, which will soon pass into law, OASIS Standards are mentioned as excellent examples of market-driven specifications that can be referenced in public procurement.

Economics and reason won the day.

Laurent Liscia, Executive Director
OASIS: Advancing open standards for the information society

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