Tuesday, April 29, 2008

An Open Letter to LITD15 committee of BIS

On 20th March 2008, the LITD15 committee of the Bureau of Indian Standards voted against Microsoft's proposed OOXML standard. 29th March 2008 was the last date for participating countries to vote on OOXML. In the interval between these two dates, Microsoft went to the Prime Minister of India and alleged that this committee acted against the national interest. Fortunately, the Indian bureaucrats who met the PM did a good job of defending the committee's vote against OOXML.

Prof. DB Phatak of IIT Bombay recently wrote a mail to the LITD15 committee saying that, "In my opinion, these actions go well beyond the behavioral boundaries for a commercial entity, some of these amounting to interfering with the governance process of a sovereign country." IIT Bombay was a member of the LITD15 committee and Prof. Phatak was part of a four-member team at IIT Bombay that did a very intense review of OOXML before the institute voted against OOXML. While Prof. Phatak is a great supporter of open source, he also has a great reputation for being fair and balanced.

An e-mail I sent in response to the mail from Prof. Phatak to the LITD15 committee is given below.


Dear Prof. Phatak and my fellow committee members in LITD15,

It is a sad day for all of us when standards are created not on technical merits but through political bulldozing. In this hour of darkness, we look up to a respected teacher like you to show us the way out.

Open Standards are the foundation upon which we can build a just and inclusive information society and therefore these issues are critical for India's digital future. Today, thanks to the growth of the open source movement, users in developing countries like India have the choice of software programs that they can freely modify and deploy. This can go a long way in bridging the digital divide in India. However, proprietary standards end up nullifying these advantages.

For example, I can download and implement a Linux desktop on my PC, but to legally acquire the rights to use proprietary multimedia codecs, I will have to pay a royalty of 28 Euros (Rs 1,680) [1]. This payment adds no value to the local economy, increases costs for the end users and widens the digital divide, especially in developing countries like India. Such proprietary standards also violate the principle that standards should belong to all of humanity and should not be the monopoly of an individual or a corporation or a group of organizations acting in concert.

What I have observed is that clever organizations are trapping people into using their proprietary standards by:

1) Driving global adoption of *their* "standards"
2) Filing a thicket of patents around these "standards"
3) Collecting royalties for usage of these "standards" or threatening lawsuits against those who do not comply

How this scenario plays out in real life can be seen from the Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG) patent case. JPEG, as most users of digital photographs know, is a popular format for photographic images that has been widely adopted by makers of digital cameras, camcorders, PDA, cellphones and other devices. In 2002, Forgent, a company that owned Patent No. 4,698,672 in the US, ambushed the industry by suing 31 major hardware and software vendors, including Dell and Apple Computers. The company alleged that these companies infringed on its claim to an algorithm used in the popular JPEG picture file format. It is reported that Forgent's legal assault earned it $150 million. Forgent was finally brought to its heels by the Public Patent Foundation that challenged and overturned Forgent's claims on the basis of prior-art.

Dan Ravicher of the Public Patent Foundation who fought the JPEG patent case points out that, in the US, where most of these battles are fought, it costs only 39 cents to send a postcard with a cease and desist notice to an alleged patent infringer, the defendant would have to spend $40,000 to get a lawyer's opinion and anywhere from $2-4 million to defend a case. I do not have comparative numbers for India, but I am sure that no one on this committee relishes seeing the insides of a courtroom.

Therefore, I hope my fellow committee members will agree with me that our first responsibility as professionals who represent India at ISO is to ensure that we do not support such proprietary standards. At this point, it is also important to point out that all ISO standards are not necessarily open standards that empower users with the freedom to encode and decode their data. India has one vote at ISO but it is an important vote and we must exercise it to ensure the creation of genuine open standards at this global forum.

I therefore propose to my fellow committee members that the first bar that any standard must pass before it gets India's approval is that standards should be completely free of any IPR issues, royalties, patent encumberances, trade secrets etc. The proposed standard should give unfettered freedom to users to encode and decode their data in that format. If, and only if, it clears this bar should it be allowed to reach the next stage where it is evaluated on technical merits.

On the OOXML Issue

I am given to understand that on 27th March 2008, the honorable Prime Minister of India held a review of this committee's "Disapprove" vote on OOXML. I am given to understand that Microsoft's submission to the Prime Minister's Office was that the committee's vote is against the national interest.

As someone who has worked over the last ten years to localize Linux to Indian languages and take IT to the 95 percent of Indians who do not speak English, I find such a comment deeply disappointing. Due to my involvement in Indian language computing, I was introduced to the transformative power of open source software and open standards like HTML. To me, the vision of building an inclusive information society is paramount and open standards are the foundation of this dream.

As a committee member, I would like to place on record my deep disappointment at the fact that Microsoft chose to question the decision of this committee at the highest office of our country. For over a year, we have reviewed the proposed standard with a fine tooth comb. Every opportunity was given to Microsoft to put their points across. At every meeting they brought a disproportionate number of participants along; some of these participants were not even Indian nationals. I think the committee as a whole was very courteous in accommodating all this but drew the line when this began to detract from the functioning of the committee. The only words that came to my mind when I heard that Microsoft's complaint had prompted the Prime Minister of my country to review this committee's decision was "stabbed-in-the-back." This was a great disservice to this committee and the country and I hope this never happens again.

It is to the credit of our policy makers, the Department of IT, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Standards that the sanctity of this committee's decision was upheld. Therefore, I wish to second Point # 3 made by Prof. Phatak and would like to place on record Red Hat's appreciation for the exemplary transparency with which the proceedings of the committee were conducted. This is in sharp contrast to other countries where the decisions of the technical committees were overruled due to political considerations. In the context of what has happened globally, the conduct of Indian policy makers is all the more admirable and has done our country proud. We would therefore like to than our oft-criticized policy makers from the bottom of our hearts.

Standards cannot (and should not) be created in a technical vaccum. Without a moral and ethical framework, we cannot create standards that benefit humanity. Mahatma Gandhi summed it up best when he said that, “Real swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of capacity by all.” I believe that this committee should be focused solely on the user's swaraj (freedom) to encode and decode their data.

At times like these we look up to our teachers to provide us with a strong ethical and moral framework and be a guiding light. I therefore look forward to your mail and to your constructive suggestions on the way forward.



PS: I have expressed some deeply held personal beliefs in this e-mail and it is entirely possible that I may be wrong in many places. However, I hope that we can start a dialogue around creating genuine open standards and India's role in creating standards that benefit the world.

[1] See http://tinyurl.com/2n4aox and https://shop.fluendo.com/


The Mad Hatter said...

Nicely written.

Venky said...

@the mad hatter: Thanks. We Indians are known to be polite and diplomatic but sometimes we have to call a spade a spade. This was definitely one of those times!

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