Standards Organizations Not A Panacea

Joi Ito quotes Irving Wladawsky-Berger the Vice President of Technical Strategy and Innovation of IBM:

If a crunch comes between the interests of the shareholders and interests of the community, a business has to choose the interests of the shareholders. A business creating a standard that it controls and says is "open" and that people should "trust them" is not robust from that perspective. Business should prevent itself from getting into these situation. Working with neutral professional organizations makes it impossible for such conflicts to corrupt the process and is key to good open standards.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger’s definition of Open Standards 17 Jan 2006, Joi Ito’s blog

The IBM VP makes a good point about potential conflict between open standards and shareholder value. And Joi rightly applauds him for making it.

However, standards bodies are not a panacea for all ills of openness.

Actually, there are several ways to game standards organizations:

  • For those that permit voting, pack the committee with many votes from your organization.
  • Drag the proceedings out and keep sending people past the endurance of other people’s or companies’ resources.
  • Hold the meetings in hard to get to locations or expensive venues.
  • Get the committee under the control of a traditional standards organization such as ITU that uses national delegations and be sure your company controls at least one national delegation.
  • Ignore an existing standards organization and form your own, as I think happened with IETF and W3C.
  • Patent important aspects of the relevant technology. Given the current state of the USPTO, this can be a significant impediment even if there is known prior art.

There are probably still folks at IBM who are, shall we say, familiar with all these techniques.

Standards committees themselves have still other ways that may or may not be under the control of corporations, such as making membership difficult in arbitrary ways, fiddling with board tenure, offering types of participation in the future that may or may not ever happen, not publishing key documents for indefinite amounts of time, etc.; ICANN comes to mind for all of those.

Standards committees are good, and can help with open standards, but they’re no panacea for all the ills that may befall openness. Vigiliance and openness in the forms of publication and accountability are other things that are necessary. I do agree with the IBM VP’s point that neutral professional organizations can reduce the risks involved in open standards; just don’t get carried away about how much they help.