David A. Wheeler's Blog

Wed, 14 May 2008

Defining “open standards”: The Digital Standards Organization (digistan.org)

Lots of people agree that we need “open standards” in information technology. The problem is, there are a lot of snake-oil salesmen who are trying to (re)define that term to mean “whatever proprietary product I’m selling”.

Will we be able to choose what products we use? Will we even be able to exercise our rights (as citizens) at all? These are important questions about our future. The answers to those questions depends on whether or not we have real open standards in place for critical areas of our lives. A vendor who controls critical standards could easily decide that something that is manifestly not in our interest could be in theirs, and force us to submit to their malevolent actions. This is already a concern, and through globalization it will only get worse. We are dependent on information systems, and those who control their standards control those systems… and thus, us. It’s about power; should we have any? This means that understanding what real open standards are about is vital.

In my essay “Is OpenDocument an Open Standard? Yes!”, I addressed this problem of multiple different definitions by finding three widely-used definitions (Perens’, Krechmer’s, and the European Commission’s) and merging them. After all, if a specification meets all three definitions of “open standard”, then it’s far more likely to be a true open standard. Problem is, with all those trees, it’s hard to see the forest.

So I’m delighted to have discovered the Digital Standards Organization (digistan.org). They have a wonderfully brief definition of “open standard”: “a published specification that is immune to vendor capture at all stages in its life-cycle”. That can be a little mystifying, so they also provide a slightly longer definition of “open standard” that clarifies what that means:

A key defining property is that an open standard is immune to vendor capture at all stages in its life-cycle. Immunity from vendor capture makes it possible to improve upon, trust, and extend an open standard over time.”

That’s a remarkably clear and simple definition, and good definitions are hard! Even better, they have posted a rationale for this definition that cuts through all the noise and nonsense, and instead gets to the heart of the matter. For example, it explains the real goals of open standards: “An open standard must be aimed at creating unrestricted competition between vendors and unrestricted choice for users. Any barrier - including RAND, FRAND, and variants - to vendor competition or user choice is incompatible with the needs of the market at large.” Here’s a quote from the rationale’s abstract, which I think makes a lot of sense:

“Many groups and individuals have provided definitions for ‘open standard’ that reflect their economic interests in the standards process. We see that the fundamental conflict is between vendors who seek to capture markets and raise costs, and the market at large, which seeks freedom and lower costs. There are thus only two types of standard: franchise standards, and open standards. Vendors work hard to turn open standards into franchise standards. They work to change the statutory language so they can cloak franchise standards in the sheep’s clothing of ‘open standard’. Our canonical definition of open standard derives from the conclusion that this conflict lies at the heart of the matter. We define an open standard as ‘a published specification that is immune to vendor capture at all stages in its life-cycle’. A full definition of ‘open standard’ must take into account the direct economic conflict between vendors and the market at large. Such conflicts do not end when a standard is published, so an open standard must also be immune from attack long after it has been widely implemented.”

Digistan is currently asking people to sign “The Hague Declaration” by 2008-05-21. This one states why open standards are important to human liberty, in ways that non-technical people can understand. As Pieter Hintjens argues in his “Open letter to Standards Professionals, Developers, and Activists”, “The Hague Declaration argues that international law and national constitutions of most democracies oblige governments to adopt open standards.” If the text of this letter looks a little like Andrew Updegrove’s A Proposal to Recognize the Special Status of “Civil ICT Standards” or his testimony in Texas, that’s no accident; Andrew Updegrove is one of Digistan’s founders.

Standards are vitally important. If we allow individual companies to control standards, then we have ensured that they will control us - and what we may do - through them. Being a non-profit helps, but even a non-profit’s no guarantee; is the organization interested in maximizing implementation and competition between potential suppliers, or does it have some other motivation (such as maximizing publication revenue)?

I think making standards available at no-charge is no longer a nicety; it is a necessity for a specification to be a truly open standard. When there were only a few standards, and all products were developed by large big-budget corporations, a $100 standard was not a big deal. But today there are a vast array of standards; simply buying “all relevant standards” is becoming prohibitive even for large companies with massive budgets. And those big budgets are increasingly rare; suppliers are often small organizations or individuals collaborating together, or are in countries where those kinds of funds are unavailable. Because the world now includes so many new suppliers, anything that prevents those suppliers from using standards is simply unacceptable. Don’t give me the nonsense that the money is needed to help develop standards; it’s not true. I’ve helped to develop many standards, and I never received a penny from the publication royalties. The IETF, W3C, OASIS, and many other organizations manage to publish their standards, and have for years. The world has changed. In today’s world, “publish” means “freely available over the Internet without having to register for it”; if you can’t Google it, it doesn’t exist. The cost of putting a specification on a public web server is essentially petty cash, and not doing so means that many (if not most) of the specification’s potential users cannot use it.

Open standards and free-libre / open source software (FLOSS) are not the same thing - not at all! There are some similarities, though. From a customer’s point of view, both open standards and FLOSS are strategies for enabling supplier switching (by preventing lock-in). In addition, customers often don’t switch to a FLOSS product, even it’s technologically superior or has lower total costs, solely because the customer is locked into an existing product due to proprietary standards (in data formats, APIs, and so on). You can choose to use open standards and not use FLOSS products, but if you use an open standard, it enables you to select a FLOSS product (now or later).

I believe, very much, in the power of competition to produce lower-cost, higher-quality, and innovative components. But competition is easily stymied through lock-in via “franchise” standards. Open standards are necessary to eliminate lock-in and bring to everyone the advantages of competition: lower cost, higher quality, and greater innovation.

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