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OOXML Payback Time as Global Standards Work in SC 34 "Grinds to a Halt"

OpenDocument and OOXML

One of the more egregious behaviors observed in the recent vote on OOXML was the sudden and last minute surge to join not only various National Bodies just before they voted on OOXML, but also the relevant committee of ISO/IEC for the same purpose. At the latter level, not one but two unusual membership changes occurred. During the voting period, more and more countries joined SC 34, the committee within ISO/IEC's Joint Technical Committee 1 (JTC1) that addresses document formats, at the Observer (O) level. Then, in the final weeks and days before the voting closed, many of these new members as well as many longer term members suddenly upgraded their status to Principal ((P) membership, thereby gaining greater influence in the final vote under the complex rules under which the committee operates (those rules are described in detail here).



SC 34 is one of the more important and active committees in JTC1, and has a constant stream of standards under active consideration and balloting.  In anticipation of the OOXML vote, its membership surged – with 23 new National Body members, and the number of P members spiking by 11.   When almost all of the new members voted for adoption (most of those countries that were long term members voted against adoption, with comments), many felt that the standard setting process had been abused.
But unfortunately, the damage has not stopped there: since the OOXML ballot closed on September 2, not a single ballot has received enough votes to count in this important committee. Why? Because the last minute arrivals to SC 34 are not bothering to vote.

The resulting gridlock of this committee was as predictable as it is unfortunate. The extraordinarily large number of upgrades in the final months, and particularly in the final days, therefore seemed attributable not to an abiding investment and interest in the work of SC 34, but in the outcome of a single standards vote. That conclusion is now certain, given the voting performance of the upgraded members since they cast their votes on OOXML.

The specific problem arises from the rules under which JTC1 committees operate, which are intended to ensure that specifications do not become official standards unless there is sufficient interest in them, as well as adequate review, to merit issuance as global standards. One of those rules is that at every balloting stage, at least 50% of the P members eligible to vote must in fact return a ballot. Even this requirement, however, does not set a high bar, because a member is permitted to return a ballot of "Abstain," and inadequate review to form an opinion is accepted as a valid reason to abstain. As a result, returning a vote of "abstain" constitutes at best only the most minimal level of good citizenship.  

The result is that a very important committee has, in the words of its Secretariat Manager in frequent pleas to the non-responsive members, "ground to a halt." The impact is significant, since this is the committee that controls standards such as RELAX NG (ISO/IEC 19757 Part 2), Schematron (ISO/IEC 19757 Part 3) and Topic Maps (ISO/IEC 13250) – not to mention ODF and PDF (if will be interesting to see if participation increases when Microsoft's PDF-competing XML Paper Specification advances to SC 34 from Ecma, where it is currently in preparation).  It is also a committee that attracts top talent on behalf of its traditional members, such as Ken Holman, Jon Bosak, Murata Makoto, Steve Pepper, Patrick Durusau, Francis Cave, Martin Bryan, and Rick Jelliffe, to name only a few. [Update/Correction 10-22-07:  James King, of Adobe, tells me that the latest PDF submission is tracking through a different committee:  ISO TC171.

It's a sad story, and one that for now does not have a happy ending in sight. For now, those that want to advance the cause can only grow increasingly frustrated.  If you want to sample the depth of that frustration, read the excerpts reproduced below from Secretariat Manager Ken Holman's plaintive weekly memos. And if you know anyone involved in standard setting in Malta, Cyprus, Lebanon, Cote d'Ivoire (and so on), do everyone a favor and ask them to consider either voting, or dropping back to Observer membership.  

Sadly, even that level of citizenship has been lacking in the newly upgraded members, whose numbers have dramatically raised the number or P members required to vote in order to advance a standard towards final approval. While I'm told that 90% of committee votes have achieved the necessary 50% return in the past, the current numbers tell a far different story: the three most recent (SC 34 N 870, SC 34 872 and SC 34 N 874) have all failed because of P member apathy.   As I read the tallies at those links, only one recent P member responded to a single ballot, even after some ballots had been reissued for a second or even a third time. Had it not been necessary to include the new P members in the calculations, the second two votes would have passed (the first related to establishing a liaison relationship with another organization, and not a standard).  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *  
Speaking of contributions, please remember that participating members have an obligation to participate in *all* ballots for the subcommittee and not just in some of the ballots.  There was a disappointing response to the last ballot, and so far a disappointing response to the ballot that is due in the week ahead. This week I am excited to report an additional five (count 'em!) participating memberships in our committee, adding Malta, Venezuela, Pakistan, Poland and Egypt to our ranks.  We also have a new observer membership from Indonesia.  We welcome all of these new members to our committee and look forward to their contributions
This week we welcome six new P-members to JTC 1/SC 34, three of them new: Lebanon, New Zealand and South Africa, and three of them as transfers from O-membership: Romania, Sri Lanka and Chile.  We look forward to their contribution to our committee.
Regarding contributions, last week I tried to remind all participating members that you have an obligation to participate in *all* ballots for the subcommittee and not just in some of the ballots you might be interested in.  My comments went unheeded and as a result the outstanding letter ballot 870 regarding Category A Liaison membership for the XML Guild failed due to a lack of response.
Directives 9.1.10 explicitly indicates "if more than 50% of the P-members have not voted, the vote will have failed."  Until we get 50% of *all* P-members responding to ballots, the work of SC 34 will grind to a halt. Please consider your obligations of P-membership.
In the next few days I will re-issue the liaison ballot, this time for 1 month.  This is the third time this question has been put forward to the membership of SC 34
In the past week we have had two new ballots issued from WG 3, and a (second!!) reissue of the liaison request from the XML Guild.  Until we get sufficient response on committee ballots, the work of SC 34 will grind to a halt and all insufficiently-responded ballots will have to be reissued. This is a critically important issue to our committee and I commend all P-members to assess their responsibility to respond, and to consider changing their membership to Observer status if they do not plan on participating in the work of our committee. Please remember that abstention is a valid vote and will help the committee continue its progress.
You will see at that link that (as of Sunday evening) only 7 member bodies of our 38 participating members have actually submitted a ballot response….Since the recent influx of new P-members to SC 34, not a single ballot has been able to be processed…
It is critically important that P-members remember their obligations:  if we do not get 20 responses per ballot, the work of SC 34 will grind to a halt….If you do not plan to participate in the work of SC 34, please consider changing your membership to Observer status.  For those national bodies that joined in the interests of DIS 29500 Ecma 376 OOXML, remember that P-member/O-member status in SC 34 has no effect on attendance and voting at the Ballot Resolution Meeting being held in February.  If this is your only interest, it would serve SC 34 well to change your membership status to O-member.
Regarding the two ballots that closed in the last week, even with all of the reminders I sent out we still fell short of the required number of ballot responses for either ballot to have their results considered. …Since the recent influx of new P-members to our committee, not a single ballot has had a sufficient number of responses to be considered.
[On a different topic, and if you still have a few more minutes:  as Rick Jelliffe noted when he linked to my last blog entry, there are some things that are much more important than whether your file format says <tomato> while mine says <tomato>.]

For further blog entries on ODF and OOXML, click here

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OOXML Payback Time as Global Standards Work in SC 34 "Grinds to a Halt" | 66 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
When do they get kicked out?
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, October 16 2007 @ 01:02 PM CDT
As I recall, they get kicked out if they don't vote for long enough, right?  How long does this take?  Any hope of adding new rules preventing them from rejoining without lots of hurdles once they're gone?
[ # ]
This is really bad...
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, October 16 2007 @ 01:23 PM CDT
Microsoft now effectively "owns" ISO... they'll ensure each of their sock-puppets votes often enough to make sure they don't get kicked out, but they'll also only vote through things Microsoft want... anything Microsoft doesn't like can be blocked simply by ensuring sufficient sock-puppets do not vote so there's no quorum
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OOXML Payback Time as Global Standards Work in SC 34 "Grinds to a Halt"
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, October 16 2007 @ 03:01 PM CDT
What exactly is the consequence of this? If the votes grind to a halt now but everyone attends for the final barely changed standard, and Microsoft is able to buy a few other committee members, will OOXML pass?

Also, will Microsoft's counter-proposal be posted on the web for review before the vote or will everything take place behind closed doors?
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OOXML Payback Time as Global Standards Work in SC 34 "Grinds to a Halt"
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, October 16 2007 @ 04:16 PM CDT
Come on Standards New Zealand. Do the right thing.
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OOXML Payback Time as Global Standards Work in SC 34 "Grinds to a Halt"
Authored by: Andy Updegrove on Tuesday, October 16 2007 @ 06:09 PM CDT

I confess that I don't know (yet) the answers to the questions that are being posed, as I only learned of the SC34 situation in the last few days. It may be that ISO/IEC has a "stand down" rule for those that don't participate (many organizations do have a mechanism to drop non-participating members from quorum requirements in order to avoid stalemates), but Ken Holman's comments don't refer to a sanction - just obligations that are not being honored.

What I find personally distressing here is that we are not dealing with (say) Sweden, where individuals showed up who may never have had any involvement with a standards organization before, and never expected to again.  Instead, we're talking about _National Bodies_ - the very people who are formally a part of the ISO/IEC process.  It's analogous not to voters in the US failing to show to vote for Congressman, but for Congressman to fail to vote - ever - in Congress.  That is truly low rent.

Sadly, I expect that of the two potential solutions (start voting or downgrade to O again), the latter is unlikely.  If one subscribes to the view that Microsoft inspired the new members and upgrades, then one would assume that these new members would want to hang on to their P status at least long enough to support MS's PDF competitor.  Hopefully they won't exercise their status in a negative way when new releases of ODF are submitted for adoption.

One has to hope, therefore, that the New Apathetics of SC 34 will therefore bow to pressure, if enough light is shed on the situation, and at least start abstaining in vote after vote, so those that actually care about the business of SC 34 can get back to that business.

  -  Andy

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OOXML Payback Time as Global Standards Work in SC 34 "Grinds to a Halt"
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, October 16 2007 @ 08:57 PM CDT
This Slashdot post claims to cite the relevant rules.
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OOXML Payback Time as Global Standards Work in SC 34 "Grinds to a Halt"
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, October 16 2007 @ 09:55 PM CDT

I'd like to address the repeated claims that Microsoft is behind this. It's not that I think the claim is necessarily false, but proclaiming its truth without a smoking gun causes serious people to dismiss open source supporters as blowhards.

Accusations of bad faith are the nuclear option of the debating world. They force people to side with either the accused or the accuser, and make both parties radioactive whatever the result.

While there's strong evidence that Microsoft's handling of DIS-29500 has often been poor, I'm not aware of anything that can't be explained away by the game of Chinese whispers that must be going on between the standardistas and the technocrats inside Microsoft, and by the general incompetence that exists in any organisation. It's a bit of a reach to suggest that none of Microsoft's behaviour is due to malice, but claiming bad faith when there's still room for doubt makes it look like your interest is in beating your opponent rather than in advancing the debate.

The best way to handle accusations of bad faith is to conduct a fair test, and to let the evidence speak for itself. If you're really interested in Microsoft's role in the process, some steps you could take are:

  • Call on Tom Robertson to retract his remarks about the ISO needing rejuvination, and to ask recent joiners to downgrade themselves to O-member status for at least one year, so they can learn the ropes without causing problems.
  • Call on Microsoft to back Ken Holman's pleas for members to formally abstain from ballots rather than ignoring them.
  • Ask Microsoft to work with the ISO and to use any contacts they have in the countries involved, in order to find out the reasons for those countries' abstention, and to fix whatever problems are involved.

These are intended to be substantive measures that Microsoft couldn't object to in good faith. If Microsoft are publicly asked to do the above and refuse, you've got your smoking gun. If they are asked and comply, we're one step closer to a working ISO.

- Andrew

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OOXML Payback Time as Global Standards Work in SC 34 "Grinds to a Halt"
Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, October 17 2007 @ 02:29 AM CDT
Rule 1.7.4 of the ISO/IEC directives part 1, procedures for the technical work :

1.7.4 A technical committee or subcommittee secretariat shall notify the Chief Executive Officer if a P-member of that technical committee or subcommittee has been persistently inactive and has failed to make a contribution to 2 consecutive meetings, either by direct participation or by correspondence, or has failed to vote on questions submitted for voting within the technical committee or subcommittee (such as new work item proposals).

Upon receipt of such a notification, the Chief Executive Officer shall remind the national body of its obligation to take an active part in the work of the technical committee or subcommittee. In the absence of a satisfactory response to this reminder, the national body shall automatically have its status changed to that of O-member.

Can we please move on, now?
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OOXML Payback Time as Global Standards Work in SC 34 "Grinds to a Halt"
Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, October 17 2007 @ 04:06 AM CDT

Would be nice if there was a happy ending in sight, but... Doesn't look like it. So what if these new members get downgraded for inactivity? What's to stop them from choosing to upgrade again the next time there's a standard proposal they absolutely want accepted? Then they'll get that pushed through, while blocking everything else until they're again downgraded.

Looks like ISO currently can't deal with that amount of cynicism. It relies on good faith and professionalism. What a shame that it doesn't exist in a world that can deliver that.
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Do you think Russia's way is better ?
Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, October 17 2007 @ 12:47 PM CDT
Situation with OOXML raised some noise in Russia and Russian deputy sent official request to Russian NB with simple question: why Russia voted "yes" ? Who and why decided so ?

The answer is totally mind-blowing: technical clerk submitted Russian "yes" vote. Apparently nags from ISO were annoying enough and so "clever" strategy was invented: Russia always votes. If the secretary does not have the response from assigned persons she just submits "yes" vote to ISO. No discussion, no questions asked.

And the official answer to official deputy request (can be found here) says exactly that: we've sent requests to few technical organizations (there are a list), got no answers in time and automatically sent "yes" vote to ISO.

Do you think it'll be better for ISO if "new blood" members will adopt such policy ?
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New Zealand is not a sockpuppet
Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, October 17 2007 @ 02:52 PM CDT
Please note that while New Zealand (mentioned above) has indeed recently unpgraded its membership to participating status, it is not a MS sockpuppet and voted against OOXML in the recent ballot. It decided to become a participating member after
<a href="http://nzoss.org.nz/news/2007/vote-closes-draft-iso-iec-dis-29500-standard"> lobbying </a> from the NZ open source society in an effort to try to balance out the influence of the sockpuppets on the panel.
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OOXML Payback Time as Global Standards Work in SC 34 "Grinds to a Halt"
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, October 18 2007 @ 06:49 AM CDT
what pitiful whining ... (smile) !   so the reality is that the social elites of this situation don't like the new members because they voted for the enemy's product (and didn't vote the politically correct way) ... oh no, we can't possibly function (hands to cheeks) !   Please, if you want to be demagogues, at least be honest dictators, or preferably, win in the market place by providing a better product ...
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SC34 grew 17 p-member for Opendocument vote
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, October 18 2007 @ 03:14 PM CDT

Mayby interesting that in april 2006 out of only a total of 10 P-member 8 members voted on a ballot


But a month later in may 2006 a total of 27 p-members voted on Opendocument. 17 more p-members in a month ?

Most of those 17 member are also very prominently absent in activity on the example ballots that Andy Upgrove gives as example.

So are the 17 new p-members that entered for the Opendocument vote to blame or the 11 that entered before the OOXML vote ??

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OOXML Payback Time as Global Standards Work in SC 34 "Grinds to a Halt"
Authored by: MURATA Makoto on Friday, October 19 2007 @ 03:31 PM CDT
I deeply appreciate this article.  If people pay attention to this issue, it becomes easier
for SC34 or JTC1 to take appropriate actions.  Or, newcomers might even start to vote.  
By the way, my name is misspelled in your article.
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Remedies? The nuclear option
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, October 22 2007 @ 06:42 AM CDT
I think people trying to make up remedies to prevent the OOXML debacle from occuring again can stop. I think there are remedies in the works that will blow everything suggested here out of the water.

The manipulation by MS have been spotted by legal experts. In the Netherlands, I saw a call by a (legal?) expert that noted that ISO standards have public policy effects by way of the WTO rules. (sorry, lost the link)

The argument is quite simple:
MS tried to force the government's hand in procurement policies. This showed that the ISO ratification process has crossed the border between technical based and political. Not only MS has been doing that, others have too. But now they woke up the civil servants.

As the process has become political, this should be a political decision from the start. Therefore, this commentator proposed to strip all voting powers from non-governmental members. Voting should be done by governmental appointed members only.

I think this, or something like it, will be the solution that the developed (and quite some developing) countries will enforce upon the ISO. Politicians do not like their policies being forced upon them by foreign companies. The previous consensus procedures prevented that. Now that they have been shown to be openly gamed and subverted by a single company, the politicians will feel they have to step in again.

It will be immaterial whether any of us, or anyone else, will like the outcome.

And to the inevitable trolls. MS has no RIGHT to its own ISO format standard. This is not a game where everybody should be allowed their own take on ISO. OASIS was asked by the EU commission to submit ODF to ISO. There was NO opposition to ODF in ISO. MS was explicitly asked to work with OASIS to merge the standards, ie, to ABSTAIN from submitting OOXML to ISO. I think most governments will feel no obligation to honor MS'  wishes to force their procurement policies. I also think they will make sure this won't happen one way or another.

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Who exactly is being paid back, and for what?
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, October 22 2007 @ 07:25 AM CDT
I don't understand the title of this blog.

Since SC34 is the one suffering, what are they being paid back for?  And who is so vindictively doing this payback?

Also, many of your commenting readers have jumped to the conclusion that it is the NBs that voted Yes to DIS 29500 that are failing to vote. In fact, it is also the NBs that voted No who have failed to vote. Only the abstainers give been relatively good.
National bodies such as Norway, New Zealand, France, China and India have been just as slack (actually, proportionally  worse but it doesn't matter) as those such from developing countries who voted Yes, such as Bulgaria, Egypt, Kenya,  Pakistan and Turkey, who perhaps have more excuse for disorganization as newbies.

Andy, did you even bother to look at the voting records before writing this blog?  They are public on the SC34 website. I am glad that there is interest in SC34, and all those NBs need to get their act together, but when you know the world is full of idiots ready to jump to conclusions why provide a skipping rope? 

(Actually, SC34 needs to be split so that NBs who are not interested in the rest of SC34s business don't hold things up like this. This is a committee scope problem as much as anything.)

Rick Jelliffe
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The worse, the better
Authored by: overshoot on Tuesday, October 23 2007 @ 08:09 AM CDT
I am in general opposed to mitigating a bad situation when a root-cause correction is available.

(Andy may appreciate this in light of recent USSC decisions which openly concede that the law is broken but also that the solution must lie with Congress.)

In that light, any approach which presupposes good faith but has no response to bad faith is begging for abuse as soon as the stakes get high enough.
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