Friday, July 18, 2008

ISO/IEC and OOXML: The judge, the jury and the hangman

Those who have been following the OOXML issue would have noted that India was among the four countries that had appealed against the ISO/IEC approval of OOXML. The next step in this drama (charade?) is that the heads of ISO and IEC have replied to the four countries. The replies
essentially dismiss the claims made by the four countries with studied nonchalance. I am not surprised. After all, if I was asked to pass judgment on my own goofups, I am not likely to hang myself. Enough has been said on how Microsoft has compromised ISO on this blog and others and I will not add to this.

The ISO Secretary General, Mr Alan Bryden was in India in December 2007 and I had asked him what he thought of the controversy surrounding the OOXML process. His answer was that ISO is a democratic organization and it will emerge stronger from this controversy. Very glib answer but an absolute and shameful lie. Just two months after Mr. Bryden's false statement ISO held a Ballot Resoution Meeting held under such apalling circumstances that we (the LITD15 committee of Bureau of Indian Standards) were forced to send a set of suggestions to ISO on how the BRM should be conducted. As we Indians are wont to do, the letter was exceedingly polite, but in retrospect, this politeness is wasted on the mafia that runs ISO.

The larger question for for policy makers in emerging markets is : Who exactly is ISO/IEC answerable to? If they interpret the rules and game the system to accommodate a big, powerful corporate interest, then maybe it is time that emerging economies created a standards body of their own with transparent governance structures and a firm commitment to royalty-free open standards. The only way that emerging countries can protect themselves against naked greed and avarice of a corporate entity in quest of super-profits and the institutions they have captured is to collaborate with each other to ensure justice. We must also send out a strong message to these greedy corporations that we have zero tolerance for such attempts at digital colonization.

We Indians have had enough of the East India Companies looting our country, and leaving a trail of bloodshed, poverty and famine behind. We have had enough of India being a soft state. If these companies want to sell in India, they better follow Indian rules and obey Indian laws and stop acting against the interests of the people of India. If you think those are harsh words, I'd recommend reading Prof.DB Phatak's blog and his detailed commentary on Microsoft's activities around OOXML. As they say, there is no smoke without fire and if a respected professor like Prof.Phatak is so furious, imagine what caused it.

Creating an alternate standards organization will be an exceedingly tough task, but standards are not an area where compromises can be tolerated. Standards govern our lives in a million different ways and the common man and woman deserve to have their standards created in an open, transparent manner that benefits everyone.

Let me know what you think of the idea of creating an open standards organization for the benefit of the emerging economies.


The Open Sourcerer said...

Hi Venkatesh, that sounds like a fine goal to me.

Specifically regarding IT standards, I suspect that ISO have lost their status because of the appalling fiasco that OOXML has been. The IETF and W3C have shown that truly open standards can be produced and implemented on a global scale...

Imagine if an international networking protocol like TCP/IP had gone through ISO? Oh yes. It did. Remember the ISO 7 Layer Model? Too complex, over engineered and never seriously implemented.

Or it would have been owned by some monolith like M$ or IBM and we'd all have to pay. That would have meant that the Internet would never have occurred.

Unknown said...

@the open sourcerer: Maybe, instead of creating a separate standards body for emerging economies, we should just be more selective and align with genuine standards bodies like IETF and W3C. Some of my friends in IETF seem to have nothing but contempt for ISO.

Thanks for your comments!

Anonymous said...

ISO no longer has any credibility as an independent, impartial entity. Without independence and impartiality a standards body cannot do it's job. ISO must be replaced or multinational corporations will use standards to entrench their own interests. ISO has signed it's own death warrant, it's time for nations with integrity to execute it.

Anonymous said...

We can all join and Digital Standards Organization. An organisation as corrupt as ISO has no worth.

Anthony Fejes said...

Hi Venkatesh,

Good blog post! (=

I'm not so certain the world needs a standards organization for emerging countries as much as the world needs a standards organization that is accountable for it's actions.

After all, it's not just emerging economies that have a problem with ISO's incompetence with the OOXML fiasco. I just wish my country (Canada) had stepped forward and appealed the vote too.

Anonymous said...

While it may be hard, maybe a new standards body is just what is needed. Most everything else is being replaced or morphing radically enough to stay alive, why not the standards body?

But I agree with anthony's comment:
"I'm not so certain the world needs a standards organization for emerging countries as much as the world needs a standards organization that is accountable for it's actions."

All the trouble that we have seen brewing the last two years is only the beginning of the avalanche that is now descending on the abusive companies, organizations and government entities. They have stared at it in disbelief, seen it start to crack and fall, and have been running around making all sorts of noise, trying to avoid the inevitable as they see it gaining speed, about to crush and bury them in the tumbling snow.


Unknown said...

Well argued. I know that this suggestion has been made in several places including on Go there and make a post in the Off-Topic thread asking about it, as there is at least one group trying to put something together, and it may be in India's interest to be involved.

Unknown said...

Thanks for all the comments. We (the free and open source software community, Red Hat) will work with policy makers to raise awareness of open standards. We have got some great responses from senior policy makers who are keeping a close eye on what is happening at ISO. This will not be treated lightly...

Anonymous said...

For interest, in the UK, all the schools teach their pupils how to use Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office (to the exclusion of, for example, Linux and ) .

The reason for this is that schools are held to a policy of purchasing software from a vendor; i.e. they cannot acquire software by downloading it from a university web site such as UK Mirror Service , or asking billionaire Mark Shuttleworth Ubuntu SHIPIT service to drop a CD in the mail. And Microsoft give educational discounts generous enough to bring the year's cost of Windows+Office below that of RedHat Enterprise Linux or SuSE Linux Enterprise Server. RedHat and Novell are on the 'Approved Supplier List', but their prices are always undercut by the local Microsoft distribution partner.

So the schools are forced to buy cheap software, rather than taking free-libre-open-source-software from the trees it grows on. Budgetary constraints, and commercial legal instructions, make it so.

This isn't actually very useful for my children. If they are to grow up and compete with you Indians in the decades to come, they need to build on top of FLOSS.

Open Standards. And if there's an open source implementation, stand on the shoulders of giants and look further. That's the way forward.