Friday, July 03, 2009

Last minute dramas around around Open Standards

Now that India's Draft Policy on Open Standards is close to finalization, the usual last-minute dramas are on. In a new twist, I am told that NASSCOM and MAIT have submitted their recommendations, purportedly on behalf of the industry. If this is indeed the case, my organization, Red Hat was not consulted. I also checked with IBM and they too were not consulted. Since Red Hat and IBM have been key players in this area, this is definitely intriguing. I shot off a letter to both MAIT and NASSCOM and a copy of the letter to NASSCOM is reproduced below. It is self explanatory. The letter to MAIT had minor editorial changes but is essentially the same letter.


Mr. Som Mittal,



International Youth Centre,
Teen Murti Marg,
New Delhi 110 021
Phone: 91-11- 2301 0199

Dear Sir,

We have been informed that NASSCOM has submitted its opinion on the Draft Open Standards Policy for e-governance to the Department of Information Technology, Government of India. We have been informed that NASSCOM's submission supports the inclusion of standards under Reasonable and Non Discriminatory (RAND) terms and also the usage of multiple standards in the same domain.

Red Hat has been actively involved in the standards issue and we would like to place on record that we have not been consulted by NASSCOM before this submission was made. We DO NOT support the above recommendations of NASSCOM for the following reasons.

1) Standards should belong to humanity and not be controlled or owned by anyone. In the physical world, we do not pay for using standards like weights and measures. These are norms of civil society that have evolved over centuries and the digital world should be no exception to these norms.

2) In order to protect India's digital sovereignty, we must ensure that national data is stored in formats that are open and free of all encumbrances like royalties, patent claims etc. The Government is the custodian of data that belongs to the citizens of India. It must therefore ensure that this data is not stored in formats that are owned and controlled by anyone.

3) e-Government data like land records etc remain relevant for hundreds of years. If this data is stored in proprietary formats, it will prove expensive for the country in the long-term. It is also seen that proprietary formats are controlled by monopolistic outfits that (a) drive the adoption of a technology (b) file a thicket of patents around that technology and (c) litigate or threaten litigation if royalties are not paid. India must avoid getting into this trap at all costs.

4) For each application area, there must be only a single standard. The use of multiple standards will lead to tremendous complications in the practice of e-governance. Since data is at the heart of e-governance, the confusion created by using multiple e-government standards in the same domain may bring e-governance to a stand still. For example, if different government departments use different standards for document storage, it could greatly slow down or even thwart the process of exchanging files among government departments.

5) Vendors should collaborate on standards and compete on their implementation. The most popular standards like HTML and Unicode are standards that are supported by a vast number of industry players. Multiple standards in the same domain leads to fragmentation. It also helps vendors who can leverage their marketing muscle to drive users towards their own proprietary standards instead of open standards that are created through collaboration and consensus.

6) The Draft Open Standards Policy for e-governance has been in the works for the last two years and several public consultations have been held on this subject. NASSCOM's presence was not visible at any of these consultations and therefore a comment being made at this late stage, when the policy is close to being finalized is surprising. The two recommendations (RAND terms and multiple standards), if accepted, will lead to nullifying the work of the committee that has toiled for the last two years to create this policy because it will land us back to the current status quo dominated by multiple, proprietary standards.

7) We welcome the acknowledgment of open source in the policy. Both open source and open standards are inclusive movements and are therefore closely related to each other. In India, open source is now an integral part of many mission-mode e-government projects and it mention in this policy recognizes its long-term strategic importance in the e-Government sector.

8) We have reviewed version 1.15 of the Draft Policy and would like to place on record our appreciation of the excellent work done by this committee. The Draft Policy does an great job of protecting India's digital sovereignty and avoiding the clutches of proprietary standards. We therefore request NASSCOM's help and support in ensuring that the policy is approved "as is" without any further dilution.

With warm regards,

Venkatesh Hariharan
Corporate Affairs Director
Red Hat