Have you discovered The Alexandria Project?
In case you haven’t thought about it lately, it’s a fair bet that everything in your life today depends to some greater or lesser extent (usually the former) on the Internet and the Web. And in case you’ve never thought about it at all, what makes those vital services possible has less to do with servers and fiber optics than it does with protocols and other standards. Take that reality a step further, and it becomes obvious that that the processes by which these essential enablers of our interconnected world are created is pretty important.
Further to that thought, a few weeks ago I was intrigued to read that five of the standard setting organizations (SSO) most responsible for the Internet and the Web had united to launch a new initiative called OpenStand. Intrigued, because while the press release answered the “who, what, when and where” aspects of the story, the “why” was a bit less fully fleshed out. I did some investigating on that front, and wrote about what I learned here.
Shouldn't YOU discover the
The Alexandria Project?
A tale of Treachery and Technology
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Since then, I’ve had conversations and exchanged email with a variety of people who were involved in creating OpenStand, and I’ve also paid close attention to a number of other announcements, such as the launch last week of WebPlatform.org hosted by the W3C, and supported by its own intriguing list of “Stewards:” Adobe, Facebook, Google, HP, Microsoft, Nokia, Mozilla and Opera Software, thus bringing together the developers of all four of the most popular Web browsers, plus some interesting partners.
OpenPlatform.org describes itself on its home page as follows:
We are an open community of developers building resources for a better web, regardless of brand, browser or platform. Anyone can contribute and each person who does makes us stronger. Together we can continue to drive innovation on the Web to serve the greater good. It starts here, with you.
You can watch a brief video from the home page, and a 30 minute version here. (WebPlatform.org also has a rather fetching animated logo that you can get attached to pretty rapidly).
And then there’s this blog entry, by the W3C’s Daniel Dardailler. Notably, Daniel offers this observation:
Standards are good; I don't need to defend them here. Without standards, no human society can evolve: they form a foundation, or rather, layers of foundations on top of which we make progress. And, much of the time, others make progress as well. Standardization is about sharing a method for doing something useful with more people.
I’ve tried to articulate the same idea more often than I care to remember over the past ten years at this site.
The fundamental importance of standards is a point worth underlining, since even those (never a large number) that are aware of standards usually spend their time down in the weeds tackling a particular technical challenge. That’s a shame, because otherwise they especially could appreciate the transformative role that standards have played since homo sapiens first learned to speak (words, after all, are consensus-based sounds we assign to objects, actions and concepts). Further to the same gestalt, it’s worth pausing to appreciate the fact that the founding fathers of America made room in the Constitution – a surprisingly brief document, given its ambition to charter an entirely new type of governing structure – to establish authority to set weights and measures (standards again).
Daniel’s blog entry is significant for another reason, however, because it links to a self-assessment by the W3C of its performance against its own benchmarks for development and maintenance of open standards. It wasn’t until I read this part of Daniel’s blog entry that I finally “got” what Open-Stand.org is all about.
You see, when I first read about the OpenStand Principles, my first reaction was, “So?” While the list of Principles was thorough and concise, there was little that was novel. Mostly, it was a competent distillation of long-acknowledged principles and practices. So why bother to salute a flag that has been around for such a long time already?
The missing link was accountability, as I noted in passing in my prior blog entry. True, in the U.S., the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) reviews and accredits SSOs on many of the same principles, but historically consortia, which are almost universally international in their membership, have been loath to utilize this service to credential themselves, lest they seem to be more US-centric than some already regard them to be. And, as ISO and IEC made clear following the ODF - OOXML battle of the last decade, oversight of standards development processes is not within their remit.
Stated another way, while there is broad agreement that “openness” matters, there are few consequences for those SSOs that fall short of that goal.
But, one might fairly ask, is there really a problem to be fixed? Isn’t it true that no “one size fits all” when it comes to the design of a standards development process, or when creating an intellectual property rights policy to provide the rules relating to patents and such? Wouldn’t imposing a rigid rule set stifle process innovation? And if there was a need for such rules, wouldn’t there also be a need for a global review body to audit compliance with the principles, and if so, how would such an entity come into existence?
I think the answer to each of those questions could most clearly be stated this way: not really. I think that what W3C, IETF, IEEE, ISOC and IAB have come up with here is a rather clever, almost guerilla-style way of raising the bar for SSOs. What they are saying is this: “When you ask the world to accept your standards, you assume the role of a self-appointed non-governmental organization (NGO), acting as a stand-in for the legislative process. If you wish to carve out a place in the global ecosystem that gives you this sort of power, then you ought to consider assuming a level of responsibility commensurate with the gravity of that role. We think that this is the rule set that goes with the territory, and we’re willing to hold ourselves accountable against those rules. How about you?”
Well, now, that’s pretty interesting, isn’t it?
One might observe that these five entities (three of which are actually affiliates of each other) threw down the gauntlet in a public way after their Principles had already been created, rather than calling for others to join in the process of distilling what those principles should be. Fair enough, and I don’t know the reasons why they chose to follow this course of action. But by launching their initiative in this way, a dialogue should be sparked that will allow everyone to have their say.
Such a dialogue is important, because the question of which organizations should be entitled to develop crucial standards is currently in the news. On the plus side, the Council of the European Union has (at long last) agreed that the standards of appropriate consortia can be referenced in procurement as well as those of European Standards Organizations, ISO and IEC. And the ITU-T is once again renewing its perennial effort to stake a claim over the Internet, an opportunity that it allowed to pass it by decades ago and a decision that it has rued ever since. Unfortunately, it hopes to reverse that decision this December, and the stakes are high.
Suffice it to say that when I first learned about the OpenStand principles, I decided to wait on endorsing them until I was able to learn more about the back story. Now that I have, I’m pleased to say that I’ve signed on. Perhaps you’d like to show our support as well. If so, you can view the Principles here, and you can show your support here.