Governments and Standards


The UK government has launched a consultation on Open Standards. Having been involved for more than a decade in discussions around ‘Open’ – mainly from a Telco perspective – my views are more complex. Here, I elaborate them. Firstly, since Oct 2011, I have had an ethics statement HERE which gives you an idea of my views and ethos. You should read them to understand more about me.


I am addressing this consultation narrowly from the perspective of two specific questions based on my experience:

a)      Should governments get in the business of mandating specific standards – (Open or not)?

b)      Should such a definition exclude Telecoms from the scope (i.e. create an artificial dichotomy separating web standards and non web standards)


Here are seven reasons elaborating my thinking

a)      Listening to people no matter how they choose to communicate:The UK government consultation admits that there is no specific definition of Open standards – but still seeks to create some form of selection process/ hierarchy for standards. I like the idea of Open standards and understand their benefits – but the libertarian in me does not agree to governments mandating specific standards – because the primary function of governments is to ‘listen to people’ in the many languages that people may choose to communicate. In other words, whatever the intentions, if a government mandates that they will use a specific standard (open standard or not) – they send the message that they will choose to selectively listen to people based on that standard. This goes contrary to the primary function of government –to engage and to interact with people. Thus, governments cannot tell people what standards to use when they communicate with them. If you extrapolate this to its natural extreme, this gets worse in case of a national emergency – ex the Japanese tsunami – when it is vital for governments to engage and listen.  So, a government cannot say in that case that it will choose to engage only through Open standards.

b)      Exclusion of telecoms in a post PC world: By many standards, we are already close to a ‘post PC’ world and to a world dominated by mobile devices. Recently, the usability guru Jakob Nielsen caused a controversy by his advice related to mobile. The OECD has published a long set of guidelines for m-government. It focusses on services. Ultimately, citizens will benefit from responsive governments. M-Government – Mobile Technologies for Responsive Governments and Connected Societies. So, in this context, it is perplexing to see why the Open standards consultation specifically excludes mobile. In the world of mobile, the standards ecosystem is much more complex and the world of standards and IPR coexists.

c)      Ignoring the boundaries between Open standards and open source: The boundaries between Open standards and open source are now more complex. Open standards and Open source are both designed to create a level playing field for players and to essentially shift innovation to higher levels. Originally, the two worlds of Open source and open standards were separate. Today, the two are more interconnected. For instance, the apache license incorporates IPR. Open source licenses have implications for standards.

d)     Governments should not get into the politics of Open standards: Open standards have a certain commercial / political maneuverings behind the scenes.  The old ‘transmission systems and light bulbs’ analogy is often used i.e. in the initial stages, there were many types of transmission systems. Over time, they harmonized – then innovation shifted to creating types of light bulbs – i.e. to higher levels of the stack. Thus, one man’s ‘open standard’ is another man’s business model. We see this with content vs. devices – i.e. device makers want content to be free so that people buy more devices etc. These commercial dynamics play out over and over again in different domains. However, it is not the remit of governments to choose sides one way or the other in this regard.

e)      Good intentions – wrong motivations: Governments have the best intentions – but the wrong motivations. For example, recently I heard a government official say that the biggest motivation for ‘Open data’ was ‘cost reduction’. In other words, the idea was supposedly – all these developers were going to create applications for citizens and save the government money .. I had some news for him .. Good developers are in very high demand. They are probably building iPhone apps – and making a lot of money! Why would they want to ‘work’ on Open data applications for free? This did not make any sense to me. Thus, ‘Open data’ is a noble intention – getting people to work for free is not ..

f)       Embedding:  What happens if a closed standard document is embedded in an open standard document? Many such hybrid use cases exist because the meaning of a ‘document’ has changed.


g)      Hardware is becoming like software and cannot be separated: Just like the dichotomy between documents and telecoms is contrived, the differentiation between software and hardware is blurring. Here are three examples

1)      Hardware acceleration for JavaScript is the next frontier in the browser wars.

2)       In a curious twist of treating hardware like software (perpetual beta), the Raspberry Pi team did not seek CE marking — a certification that ensures the manufacturer has complied with European regulations – because it believed the single-board computer was not a “finished end product” and did not require the certification.   $35 Raspberry Pi Linux PC delayed once

3)      We now have open source hardware – of which I am a fan – such as Arduino

h)      Be like the USA/CIA – be pragmatic: U.S. Underwrites Internet Detour Around Censors. Presumably, the ‘toolkit’ includes whatever works (twitter,facebook,GSM etc) – no artificial dichotomies/hierarchies here.

So, to conclude:

a)     The consultation is overly simplified. It is not possible to separate ‘software and telecoms’ and also ‘software and hardware’.

b)      Governments are not in the business of setting standards – they are in the business of engaging with people.  I like the idea of Open standards and understand their benefits – but the libertarian in me does not agree to governments mandating specific standards – because the primary function of governments is to ‘listen to people’ in the many languages that people may choose to communicate.

c)       Similarly, governments need to appreciate the politics of open standards – it is not a simplistic ‘motherhood and apple pie’ discussion

d)      Many forms of licensing, mix of open source and open standards with permissive licensing like Apache will co-exist

There is wonderful statement attributed to Napoleon – where Napoleon says: ‘All my generals are ready and able to fight the LAST war’. This discussion reminds me of that statement. We ignore the forthcoming complexity by focusing attention on past ecosystems.