Where is there an end of it? | Reforming Standardisation in JTC 1 – Part 1

Reforming Standardisation in JTC 1 – Part 1

The ongoing controversies surrounding the standardization of ISO/IEC 26300:2006 (OpenDocument Format 1.0) and ISO/IEC 29500:2008 (Office Open XML) have served to highlight several weaknesses in the International Standardisation processes for ICT specifications handled by JTC 1, the “Joint Technical Committee” that combines aspects of ISO and IEC for that purpose.
However newsworthy these particular projects have been, the underlying problems in JTC 1 go deeper, and I believe is incumbent on all who care to avoid solutions which smack of “single issue politics” – hard cases, after all, make bad law.
This post is the first in a series which aims to set out proposals for broad reforms that could help ensure JTC 1’s future. These posts are offered “out of process” as an informal starting point. They, like everything on this blog, are personal views – but have been informed by discussions with many experienced standardisers from many nations over the course of the last two years. My intention is that after the posts have been completed they will be assembled into a short paper (taking comments into account) which, I hope, may influence the onward international debate.

10 Recommendations for Reform

I make 10 recommendations and shall explore each in 10 forthcoming posts. In summary, they are:

1. Assert the worth of International Standardization

There are many organisations producing standards, but International Standardisation is the preserve of the de-jure organisations alone; this difference benefits the peoples of the world and must be preserved. The encroachment of “standardisation by corporation” must be resisted. More...

2. Recognise the distinctive requirements of ICT Standardisation

ICT standards are different from standards for piping, wiring or management processes; ISO and IEC need to make JTC 1 the sole steward of this distinctive subject area.

3. Re-draft the JTC 1 Directives

The JTC 1 Directives are an embarrassment; the current piecemeal patching efforts have palpably failed and serve only to empower administrators over nations. The Directives need to be re-drafted from scratch by professionals.

4. Move away from paper-based publication models

The current business model and many procedures within JTC 1 are predicated on producing and selling paper publications; this unnecessarily impedes the ICT standardisation process.

5. Widen International participation

In practice JTC 1 is currently dominated by a cosy club of rich, experienced nations; JTC 1 needs pursue a programme for fostering a much greater (i.e. genuinely international) reach.

6. Find a way for vendor-led standards to mesh with JTC 1 processes without compromising International control

Worthwhile standards will originate from outside JTC 1; a way must be found to make them International Standards avoiding the manifest flaws of the current accelerated adoption mechanisms.

7. Periodically change the nation having the Secretariat and Chair appointments

It is absurd that a purportedly International organisation has its effective HQ lodged for perpetuity in the USA.

8. Balance transparency and confidentiality

Openness and transparency can lead to better standardisation, but are by no means panaceas.

9. Clarify intellectual property policies

International Standards must have clearly stated IP policies, and avoid unacceptable patent encumbrances. More...

10. Encourage best practices at National level

International Standards rely on the efforts of the sovereign Nations that participate; JTC 1 should encourage these Nations to raise their games.

Comments (20) -

  • carlos

    10/7/2008 11:38:09 PM |

    "The ongoing controversies surrounding the standardization of ISO/IEC 26300:2006 (OpenDocument Format 1.0) "

    Could you point ( a document, a link, something ) about where is the "controversie" about standardization of ISO/IEC 26300? Thanks.

  • Alex

    10/7/2008 11:54:29 PM |


    The recent fuss about maintenance is a good example of the "ongoing controversy", for some information about its roots see my one of my ealier blog entries

    which comments on the "unseemly haste that most concerned me and my fellow UK delegates during this meeting" in regard to the standardisation of ODF and (then mooted) OOXML.

  • carlos

    10/8/2008 2:47:09 AM |

    so, basically you put in equal foot the Microsoft specification fiasco ( also called "standard" in some contexts ) with a *recent* "fuss" about maintenance that indeed is only JTC SC34 proposing Oasis a maintenance regime for ISO 26300... well well

    by the way, while i don't agree with this over-simplification yours... i agree with many of your points about JTC1 reform ( i'm afraid to say that at this pace... i don't expect JTC1 get reformed at least for 5 years... )

    one suggestion:  don't fear openness and transparency, what you have to loose with them? you are not making a secret nuclear weapon, you are discussing international standards for the *public* aren't you?


    PS: sorry if i seem rude,,, english is not my native language

  • Alex

    10/8/2008 2:56:17 AM |


    I'm not sure about "equal footing" but I can assure you the standardisation of ODF is proving controversial in JTC 1 and will be a major topic at the upcoming Nara plenary.

    > one suggestion: don't fear openness and transparency,
    > what you have to loose with them?

    I appreciate "open" is a sacred cow at the moment, but I am personally inclined to think its merits are seriously oversold. When we get to my post on Item #8 we can all have a jolly good discussion. Maybe I can be persuaded otherwise!

  • Andrew Sayers

    10/8/2008 4:40:19 AM |

    Hi Alex,

    If you'll forgive the soapbox, I'd like to present an idea I've previously discussed on Andy Updegrove's blog, without really coming to a conclusion.

    It's been pointed out before that product standards follow very different rules to technology standards.  I understand technology standards to be atomic blocks of standardisation that describe how to perform some specific function, whereas product standards specify an arrangement of technologies designed for a specific task.

    I absolutely see how international standardisation is the best solution for technology standards, but I don't see it can add any value to a product standard.  In fact, putting an ISO label on a product standard can actually harm innovation by artificially promoting specific uses of technologies.  What if I want to use `tar` instead of `zip` to store my OpenDocument files?  What if I want to use DrawingML in my CAD program?

    Recent events have shown that product standards also have a corrosive effect on standardisation, because if a company stands to gain/lose £x billion if their standard is accepted, then they would be negligent not to put £0.1x billion aside to ensure that their standard is accepted by fair means or foul.

    As such, I suggest that one of the first steps in deciding whether to put a document on an international standards track be to ask "does this document specify an indivisible solution to a specific problem, and if not, could the divisions be standardised separately?".  This would let the ISO get on with what it's good at, and leave product standards to consortia better placed to handle the politics and wrangling between vendors.

      - Andrew

  • Gareth

    10/8/2008 6:47:27 AM |

    @Andrew - Having an ISO imprimateur is only beneficial if the consumers are convinced by marketing/messaging that it is important, or that it has been empirically proved to be so.  W.r.t the document format wars, no-one really cared about standards in that realm until IBM raised the issue in some influential places.

    We know this from experience, since our customers generate untold amounts of Excel files.  When we survey our users, ODF and standards etc was never on the radar until IBM put it there.  It's now pretty much off the radar again, since ODF no longer has a USP, so to speak.

    I find it interesting that you think that you can actually buy standardisation - I don't think you can, otherwise OOXML would have gone through with far less fuss.  I think, perversely that OOXML shows the checks and balances ARE in place, since as long as there is a thriving standards community, there are going to be competitors pitched against each other, with horse trading between them, plus the uninterested parties (hopefully) making rational decisions after reading between the lines of the pugilists' agendas.

    As Alex has mentioned before, it is the NBs that decide, and even with stuffing, there is still enough diversity to keep it relatively honest.

    It does raise an interesting question whether a bookmaker will take a bet on the passing/failing of a standard, should an interested organization wish to hedge.

    I'm not sure whether you see "pay-per-vote" (a "vote" is per member, and you can pay for as many members as you like from any company) organizations like OASIS as a product standards consortia or not.  Most of these institutions have their own issues and loopholes.

    The problem of whether any forum and it's associated processes can ever be seen as squeaky clean and infallible is never going to be resolved, since even if in fact, such a thing existed, you can't please all the people all of the time.


  • Andrew Sayers

    10/8/2008 2:42:25 PM |


    To be clear, I'm not saying that the ISO can be bought off, just that you can make its proper functioning very hard given enough money - forcing the standards issue onto customers' radars is a good example of that.  If there were a compelling case for putting up with the extra noise then that would be different, but I don't see what extra value you get for your trouble.

    I do indeed see OASIS as an example of a consortium that would be a good place to develop product standards.  While I agree that each consortium has issues and loopholes, the difference is that market forces are applicable to consortia - if ECMA's credibility has been sufficiently tarnished by recent events, it can simply be liquidated and its customers go elsewhere.  International standards organisations are typically too big to be toppled by events in any one industry, and too wired in to the system for that to happen anyway.  As such, it's important that they take a different approach.

      - Andrew

  • zoobab

    10/9/2008 5:20:18 AM |

    There is no point at trying to reform ISO.

    Having this seperation of membership between countries members of the club is absurd.

    Citizens interested in standardisation might not be citizens of a country member (P or O) of ISO.

    So this national membership is not relevant and should be abolished.

    That means abolish the current way ISO is built.

    Virtualise it, replace ISO by a web server: this is what Digistan will be about.

  • Alex

    10/9/2008 12:58:26 PM |


    > There is no point at trying to reform ISO.

    Totally negative, as usual.

    What I think you're saying is that you don't approve of International (or presumably European or National) Standardization, and wish to impose your dislike by elimintating it? Well, you'll just have to wait for my point 1 ("Assert the worth of International Standardization") I guess.

    - Alex.

  • André Rebentisch

    10/9/2008 10:36:11 PM |


    I appreciate your initiative for a procedural reform of the International Standards Organisation, let me add some reform suggestions of mine:
    1. A IP policy of ISO is already existing. However, the ISO does not provide for self-selection along RF vs. RAND. In the industry disclosure of precise patents is generally seen as unnecessary and potentially dangerous. ISO provides only for RAND as minimum conditions and participants can go beyond. The main vendor backing OOXML wrote to the EU-Commission that it agrees on RF terms for its office formats. But as of the OSP we don't know its applicability on a worldwide scale. It is not their fault. There are no generally accepted license models and private law is internationally very much diverse. The development of 3-4 bullet-proof standard licensing schemes by ISO is recommended.
    2. In the case of non-disclosure of patents and subsequent "submarine patents" the ISO could impose a ban (or other sanctions) on parties that engage in these kind of activities for participation in international standardisation. The governmental side may assist with new legal instruments to indemnify adopted international standards under a numerus clausus principle.
    3. Allow for open electronic submission of defect reports and comments. Defect reports should be undisclosed to allow their dissemination.
    4. Set review time for a document based on volume and gradual maturity criteria.
    5. As of the question whether EU or ISO standardisation is obsolete I support the view that the current EU standardisation framework is without merits and the outdated EU-directives require reform.
    6. Provide for independent peer review under similar strong independence conditions as apply to financial auditing. The peer review could be privatized.
    7. Ensure that all participants of international standardisation can participate professionally and do not act as mere conduits bound by an imperative mandate. Here indeed an approach of "open meeting" may cause problems, the BSI expressed a strong preference towards confidential deliberations.
    8. Ensure that business affiliations of participants are disclosed.
    9. Provide for minimum recommendations regarding procedural rules in national Committees.
    10. Provide for a preference towards domestic participation in national standard organisations.
    11. Review or revoke the a-liaison status of ECMA and impose minimum procedural requirements for a-liaison partners. ECMA as a "fast-track business" exercised far too much influence in the past process and undermined the role of NSO.

    -- André

  • Alex

    10/9/2008 11:26:38 PM |


    Many thanks for that great comment! Some further thoughts ...

    On 1 and 2 (patents etc.) I will start by stating straight away that I am not a lawyer (let alone an IP lawyer), so this is definitely an area where help is appreciated. It seems to be the whole idea of making ICT standards encumbered by IPR is pretty dumb. The idea of an set of pre-written schemes is very interesting - as you imply the main challenge here is achieving user certainty. If the world community insists on continuing to be able to make IPR-encumbered standards, they should at least be clearly labelled as such. The market than can decide (against them, I am sure).

    I think banning participants who have submarined a patent sounds good in theory but is hard in practice. If one rogue individual does it, will a whole country by penalised? Again, the route of soliciting government indemnification is extremely interesting - makes the reform even more of a challenge mind you Smile

    On 3, defect reports are already submitted electronically, and the submitting NBs may elect to be anonymised. I think it is necessary to retain the NBs as a filter through which individual comments are routed, primarily because that maintains the International aspect of the process but also, practically speaking, because NBs can filter out poor-quality and duplicate comments and be on guard for patent submariners and commercial abusers.

    On 4, yes - there is already a proposal before JTC 1  (from Canada, IIRC) that document review time should be a function of page count. That would have the immediate beneficial effect of preventing over-large documents being inappropriately standardised through PAS/Fast Track; though I fear the political consequences if this is passed and a future ODF text enters a review tar pit as a consequence.

    On 5, that is probably too general comment for me to engage with meaningfully. On this narrower topic (International ICT Standardisation) I think JTC 1 can play an important and useful role for the users in the world.

    On 6, what are you proposing would be peer reviewed? The documents being considered for standardisation?

    On 7, strongly agree - this is the famous "standardisation by corporation" problem. Ultimately it will be up to NB's to ensure they are not overly representing vendor interests (if that is what they wish to avoid). I have a slightly different view than many, I think, of the balance needed between confidentiality and openness (which I will spell out in full, later).

    On 8, that already happens - BSI and JTC 1 (for example) list the affiliations of those taking part in committee meetings. However, I am not sure how much this achieves as it is very easy for a bad-faith participant to have an undeclared affiliation.

    On 9 & 10, yes - this is part of recommending best practice guidelines for NB's. There is a problem of making this enforceable as the question of "who judges?" will arise. Perhaps there is some happy medium where certain criteria can be stipulated which are empircally measurable (such those based on voting record).

    On 11, the trouble with punishing Ecma is that it throws the baby out with the bath water. Generally, they have been responsible for small, useful, widely-supported standards coming through in the Fast Track. Ultimately, I don't think it is Ecma's fault if the bad state of the JTC 1 Directives enabled them to pursue a route that was unsuitable; the better solution is to reform the Directives to disempower vendor consortia (that goes for OASIS too). However, note that a new JTC 1 Directive has recently been passed that requires all JTC 1 committees at all levels to review and re-affirm all their liaisons annually.

  • hAl

    10/10/2008 5:23:17 PM |

    I is amazing how organisations depent on funding form either the EU or ceratin companies ofr certain (foss) interest groups think they are more impartial that ISO/IEC.

    Digistan has close ties to for instance the FFII, ESOMA and OFE which I would not think of as impartial organisation. The FFII for instance responsibel for the noooxml site and OFE for the anti-ooxml geneva meeting.
    And then looking at anti ooxml campaigner like yourself, Steve Pepper and Rob Weir in the list makes me smile.
    The contact list looks like more like an anti-ooxml meetingground than a serious standards organisation.  
    Digistan is a joke.
    You might as wel have called it noooxml. Essentially looking at it, Digistan already is noooxml.  

    By creating what you suggest is a standard organization on what is essentially a group people with an a strong history of anti-standardization behaviour that organization will no doubt be a very good future.

    The whole FFII, ESOMA, OFE, Digistan, ODF alliance, EUPACO and whatever else organisations ? Who is funding them ? How independant are these anyways ?

  • Alan Bell

    10/12/2008 4:00:47 AM |

    It would be unseemly for the representatives of one vendor to totally dominate the committee representing any particular national body, and I am sure each individual national body is diligent in ensuring they have fair and balanced representation. It seems to me that nobody has considered how unseemly it appears when all the national bodies get together and a small number (two) of multinational companies having a perfectly reasonable representation at a heck of a lot of NBs in aggregate end up have a totally unreasonable global block vote and the whole affair turns into a corporate political slanging match.
    This is a structural problem and has nothing to do with the subject matter under discussion, I think it just came much more into focus as an issue when one of the over-represented vendors pitched their own subject into the ring.
    Interesting choice of blog engine by the way.

  • Alex

    10/13/2008 12:31:26 AM |


    I like to compare vendors in NBs to the nuclear matter in reactors: they can generate very useful energy but oh boy, it needs to be contained. I think for 29500 (for I believe that is what you have in mind) it was inevitable that there was going to be a slanging match, from the outset.

    > Interesting choice of blog engine by the way.

    Do you like it? I wanted something with URLs for comments, which didn't need an RDBMS (too stingy to pay for that), and which would run in parallel with my old PHP-based blog. So far, it seems okay but appears to "hang" sometimes.

  • Alan Bell

    10/13/2008 4:33:09 AM |

    @Alex, obviously the situation in 29500 was very stark, but I think that the ISO process could be scuppered in other contexts by multi-national interests. Imagine how it would look if there was a meeting of all the NBs working on "Thief resistant lock assembly - Key egress" and although each NB thought they had a balanced committee of security experts, when they all got in the room it looked like a Chubb employees sales conference. Maybe multi-national companies should be limited to standard participation only in the country of their head office. Not a perfect solution as this would be excluding the valuable contributions of experts from their global locations, but I can't think of a better solution right now.

  • Alan Bell

    10/13/2008 4:36:11 AM |

    as for the blog engine, I use WordPress with a MySQL backend, yours seems to work just fine and I like the preview thing. I was interested in the selection of an Open Source engine on a .Net platform. A perfect "sitting on the fence" compromise for you Smile

  • Gareth

    10/13/2008 10:19:56 PM |

    @Alan:I understand the reasoning behind trying to limit the influence of interested parties, but the exclusion of globally placed experts is probably too high a price to pay.

    Not only will that limit the international views of subject matter experts (what's right for my local consumers of this standard), but very likely will concentrate the expertise to the few countries where large-scale companies that tend to do the lion's share of the work are domiciled.

    One good example of why not would be Sun's German folks not allowed to participate in ISO on ODF. They are the primary subject matter experts.

    This could lead many NBs to be bystanders, most likely abstaining for a lack of domain expertise.

    I'll join you in not being able to think of a better solution right now.

    (BTW - apologies for not setting the Union Flag in my previous post.  However, does the flag refer to citizenship, or residence?)


  • Alan Bell

    10/14/2008 4:02:55 AM |

    @Gareth, and IBM's Symphony developers are in China. In my view the fundamentals of the situation come down to the little national flags on this blog that you didn't know to set and don't know quite what they mean because you have probably not come across that on the internet before (I haven't). Most parts of the technical internet are an open meritocracy. Citizenship, residence, race, colour, gender have no relevance, and are rarely known. The ISO country club follows a different model where they seek fair representation over a geographic spread, your flag of allegiance is important. This is not in itself a bad thing, but it clashes with the internet model and has different strengths and weaknesses. We know all about the weaknesses but it is possible that if ISO had shaped the internet a bit more there would have been no ASCII (an outrageous piece of arrogance to assume that all human language glyphs could be captured in 7 bits) and date-times that do timezones and bi-directional text would have been supported from the start.

  • Gareth

    10/14/2008 6:59:16 AM |

    @Alan - you are a gentleman and a scholar for biting on the flag issue I teed up.  You did not disappoint!

    Now as you might have guessed from my earlier posts and any others you may have come across in the usual places - I am on the "dark side" from your POV, as a commercial software developer.  I think the trick will be to ensure people like me and people like you both go away happy from the standards process, and be able to keep doing what we do.  I don't think it is insurmountable and it does, to an extent, come down to reasonable people being reasonable.

    I have a quote from Rob Weir, in the comments of one of his own blog posts

    "I'm firmly on the engineering side of interoperability. We don't get there by social drinking and singing kumbayah."

    I beg to differ.  The engineering follows the specification. And in software development, as with standards, the specification is born out of a huge amount of social drinking and singing kumbayah - not literally of course, but a huge amount of discourse (could be down the pub), thrashing out compromises for the needs of various interested parties and ensuring that everyone is on the same page (the one with the kumbayah lyrics on, of course) before getting down to the tedious implementation minutiae.  

    Maybe I am quoting Rob out of context, as he was probably referring to a "how to I get there from here" problem with two known quantities.  But he wants to "drain the swamp", which from his point of view seems to mean get rid of anyone not aligned with IBM from SC34/JTC1/ISO/Earth.  The solution is not to drain the swamp, but to turn it into a thriving ecosystem.

    IBM's new strategy (well Rob anyway) of not participating in order to make the MS contingent proportionally larger may provide fodder for a blog factoid but in the end, if they ever participated in good faith, it's a real loss.

    As Alex said earlier, the fission/fusion within the NBs has to be contained.  What's Joyce Grenfell doing these days?


  • Andre

    10/22/2008 10:13:35 PM |

    Dear HAl,

    I is amazing how organisations depent on funding form either the EU or ceratin companies ofr certain (foss) interest groups think they are more impartial that ISO/IEC.

    This video is for you:

    ISO is just a forum but it had no strong governance mechanisms to defend sound procedures. Every trade association is funded one way or the other. This doesn't mean it is a drone. I am not aware of any organisation that seeks EU funding. FOSS is as you know largely underrepresented in the EU but I heard OFE now cooperates with a new FOSS representation group. I wonder what the outcome will be.

    Digistan has close ties to for instance the FFII, ESOMA and OFE which I would not think of as impartial organisation.

    That statement is to my own surprise not true.

    It is interesting to me that you confuse the institutions and their roles but also misunderstand the role of Digistan, a project much older than the small Open XML standardisation conflict. What the conflict added was the Domino project and the general uptake of the organisational effort.

    As of standardisation balance the ideal is freedom of national or vendor capture. That is generally accepted in international standardisation and of course includes vendors as e.g. IBM and RedHat.

    Let me widen your perspective. Open XML and ISO standardisation is just part of a larger public procurement and order policy context. May I quote from my EIF2 comments submission:
    "The persistent bullying of vendors faced with schumpeterian competition threats against public officials demonstrated the needs of government users to get better organized to pursue their objectives of openness and interoperability and ensure stronger governance. For European citizens and small and medium enterprises which share these objectives... it was quite a negative experience to observe this campaigning against good governance of IT services. It also drew democratic concerns as the respective vendors forgot to stick to the restraints and code of conducts which apply in particular to participation in public decision making in non-domestic markets."

    Neither do we want that companies from oversees "outraise and outspend" our political leadership nor capture national and international standard committees.

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