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Please Welcome Digistan

Standards and Society

On Wednesday, I introduced The Hague Declaration to those that visit this blog, promising to write again shortly to introduce the new organization that created the Declaration.  That organization is called the Digital Standards Organization (Digistan, for short), and I'm pleased to say that I am one of its founders.  In this entry, I'll give you my perceptions of what Digistan is all about, and what I hope it will accomplish.

You'll notice that I just used the words "my perceptions."  This is for a number of reasons, the first being that this is still a very young organization that has taken shape, primarily via a listserv.  I was welcomed onto the founders listserv on November 12, bringing the total number of participants to 13.  Since then, that list has grown.  As of today, there are 19 individuals that have agreed to publicly associate themselves with the organization as founders, and it would be fair to say that there is a broad range of views (from conservative to radical) represented in this cross section of experienced professionals.  Together, we have been reaching consensus on various pieces of the still-incomplete and evolving puzzle, adding them to the Digistan site as sufficient agreement is reached to make them public, while still allowing the pieces to change to reflect continuing discussion.

The result is that the organization, to an extent, is not unlike the story of the five blind men touching the proverbial elephant, but with a twist.  It would be more accurate to say that each of the blind men has arrived on the scene not to find a strange new creature, but rather bearing a piece of the elephant.  Today, we are still completing the process of putting the beast together.  For this reason, what I write in this entry should be regarded as my perceptions alone, and the rights of the other founders to describe their piece of the elephant, and their vision of the final product, must be preserved.

With all that said, what is innovative new animal we call "Digistan?"  Here's how it feels to me.

What is Digistan's Mission?  First and foremost, it must be acknowledged that Digistan is the result of the vision and tireless (but tactful) energy of Pieter Hintjens (I'll return to Pieter's contribution later in this post).  That vision incorporates and channels the work of many others who have spoken out in the past in favor of "openness" in general, and in some cases on the intersection of openness and human rights (Digistan founder Alberto Barrionuevo being an example of the latter).   Pieter's vision, as it has evolved in discussions with the other founders, is now instantiated in the Mission statement, which you can find in full here.  It reads in part as follows:

The Digital Standards Organization (Digistan) seeks to promote customer choice, vendor competition, and overall growth in the global digital economy through the understanding, development, and adoption of free and open digital standards ("open standards").

In concrete terms, we seek to:

  1. Educate industry and government about the socioeconomic benefits of open standards;
  2. Advocate legislative and regulatory backing for open standards;
  3. Help standards developers produce high-quality open standards;
  4. Help standards authorities understand, qualify, and enforce open standards.
  5. Defend the open standards community, small and large, against capture by vendors.

Digistan is active in, and welcomes active support, in all these areas.

Much of the above is fairly non-controversial, but some is more activist.  Notable is item 5, which is one of the elements that distinguishes Digistan from various other organizations.  This concern is also reflected in the current (in the sense that nothing is fixed, and can further evolve) definition of a "free and open standard."  That high-level definition is as follows:

The Digital Standards Organization defines free and open standard as follows:

  • The standard is adopted and will be maintained by a not-for-profit organization, and its ongoing development occurs on the basis of an open decision-making procedure available to all interested parties.
  • The standard has been published and the standard specification document is available freely. It must be permissible to all to copy, distribute, and use it freely.
  • The patents possibly present on (parts of) the standard are made irrevocably available on a royalty-free basis.
  • There are no constraints on the re-use of the standard.

A key defining property is that a free and open standard is immune to vendor capture at all stages in its life-cycle. Immunity from vendor capture makes it possible to freely use, improve upon, trust, and extend a standard over time.

A fair amount of discussion went into this definition, which went down a variety of roads before we decided to closely paraphrase the European Commission's European Interoperability Framework v.1 definition.  Again, the last line stands out.  The reason for its existence is that while a well-run standards process that meets the prior criteria would be likely to achieve the same result, that result is not guaranteed.

It is important to note that avoiding vendor capture is hardly the only challenge to creating useful, high quality, widely adopted standards - only that this particular organization has identified this result as being relevant to its mission.  Speaking for myself, this is only one among many important issues that require ongoing attention in order to ensure that the standards we end up living with are the standards that we truly need.

How did Digistan come about?   It would be fair to say that Digistan is to some extent a reaction to the ODF/OOXML experience.  That said, it would be inaccurate to say that in the future Digistan will be particularly focused on that situation.  Rather, the document format battle informed a great many people for the first time about the importance of open standards, as well as gave them some visibility into how technical standards are created.  It also exposed a wide audience for the first time to what the existing standard setting structure does well, and what it does not so well. 

This information fell on fertile ground (especially in Europe), given the widening awareness of the importance of creating free and open source software, open content and open development.  For the first time, those who were already committed to those methodologies and goals became aware of the importance of open standards to achieving their related goals.  It also revealed the fact that while standards can have enormous impact on people everywhere, very little influence is asserted on their development by anyone other than vendors and small subsets of government, academic and other constituencies. 

Historically, this has not been a source of great concern to most citizens.  But with the rising importance of the Internet and the Web, it has become clear that certain standards that can appropriately be called "digital standards" are of great concern to everyone.  And from this realization, Digistan was born, catalyzed by a very public contest involving two document formats bearing the seemingly innocuous acronyms ODF and OOXML.

Who formed Digistan?  As noted above, the motive force behind Digistan has first and foremost been Pieter Hintjens.  Pieter's brief bio on the About page at the Digistan site reads in part as follows:

Pieter Hintjens is a software entrepreneur, software designer, writer, and campaigner with over 25 years' experience in the IT business. His specialty is the analysis and design of large-scale systems (both technical and social) through the mixture of top-down structural guidelines and bottom-up organic activity. He is the founder and director of iMatix Corporation, and the CEO of Wikidot Inc. He was the main author of the AMQP/0.8 industry standard messaging protocol, developed by JPMorganChase and iMatix Corporation, and the main designer of the OpenAMQ messaging system. He is the founder of the European Software Market Association and the European Patent Conference. He has a bachelors degree in Computer Science.

I asked Pieter to summarize briefly what motivated him to spend so much of his time creating Digistan.  He provided the following in response:

Open standards matter very much to me.  I've watched the growth of the Internet since its earliest days, and there is something magical about how freedom makes people productive, and wealthy.  I do hope that the freedom to innovate will help mankind step over the chasms that face us in the future, as oil and other natural resources run out.  I don't want my children to grow up in a world where freedom is the luxury of the wealthy.  And free and open standards are essential to the open Internet we're used to.  So when I see open standards under threat,from software patents and from vested interests, my reaction is to call out to people like me, to organize, and to fight back.  Digistan is meant to become an umbrella for the many, many groups working for open standards around the world.

It's fair to say that all of the founders share Pieter's belief in the importance of digital standards to ensuring that the benefits of the Internet and the Web are enjoyed by everyone around the world, although not all of us (me, anyway) might be as vigorous in our style and approach. 

Pieter has driven the process, set up and maintained the Web site, and been the motive force in framing out the concept and mission.  He has also been the initial draftsman of each of the artifacts of significance at the Digistan site.  In each case, these documents were then posted to a Wiki, after which they evolved through discussion and incremental changes by those on the founders list.  These artifacts include both internal policies as well as The Hague Declaration and a related Open Letter to Standards Professionals and Activists, and the current (remember that all elements can, and doubtless will, continue to evolve) mission statement and definition of a Free and Open Standard.

Is Digistan simply a bunch of rabid Microsoft bashers?  No.  Digistan has not been founded to act against any single company, or group of companies.  In fact, the only employee of a major vendor (IBM) among the founders, Rob Weir, is a very late arrival to the group.  Rather, there is a wide range of viewpoints and priorities represented among the founders, and none of us speaks for the others, although together we share certain goals and values.

The initial founders derived heavily from the European open software movement, including individuals active in organizations such as the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure.  Over time, it has expanded geographically and categorically, with additions such as myself, Brian Kahin (
a Senior Fellow at the Computer & Communications Industry Association in Washington, DC. as well as a Research Investigator and Adjunct Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information), Bob Jolliffe (founding director of Freedom to Innovate South Africa (FTISA)), and Rob Weir (author of An Antic Disposition).

It is true that Pieter was one of the motive forces behind <NO>OOXML, as were two other Digistan founders, Benjamin Henrion and Alberto Barrionuevo.  However, Digistan is not NOOOXML under a new name.  Over the past six months, the character of the organization has evolved, with some founders advocating for an edgier, more confrontational tone that will appeal to grass-roots activists, and others (such as myself) pushing for a more toned down, conservative approach that will make it harder for critics to dismiss the organization as being either a front for opposing vendors, or a radical fringe that is best ignored. 

Already, one such blog entry has been posted, rather incredibly suggesting that the name Digistan was selected "to identify with the fascist terrorists based in countries and regions using the Farsi-based suffix 'stan'”  (a counter opinion is offered by Glyn Moody here).  This is interesting news to those that came up with the name, and, for the record, I am not aware of the presence of a single representative of Mr. bin Laden on any Digistan listserv.  Moreover, there is no intention to require any member of Digistan to take political oaths to any particular ideology.  Nor is it  clear to me in any event how the creation of open standards can preferentially be directed towards the destruction of any particular social, religious or political belief system. I promise to report promptly to Mr. Byron if this situation should change.

In summary of this point, Digistan is neither a radical organization nor a front for any other organization, vendor or group of vendors, or I would not have joined.  In fact, one of the reasons that I agreed to be named as a founder was to try and counteract such an impression (at least among those that are not of the opinion that I'm a radical), and thereby encourage others to join and become active as well.

How does Digistan operate?  Very openly (naturally), though listservs, Wikis and face to face meetings, such as the workshop to be held in The Hague on May 21st.  It
is important to note that Digistan is based upon a "grass roots" model, welcoming not only individuals, but encouraging local organizations (existing or created for the purpose) to affiliate.  To date, there are three affiliates:, in France, Koalicji na Rzecz Otwartych Standardów (KROS) in Poland, and Proyecto Estándares Abiertos in Spain.

The best way to find out more is by browsing through the Digistan site, and then joining the public list, one of the several working groups that have already been set up, or one of the three local chapters.

I believe in the goals of Digistan, and hope that Digistan will be able to act as the focal point for the efforts of individuals around the world that are committed to ensuring that the benefits of the Internet and the Web are secured for all.  If you share those goals, please consider offering your support as well, including by adding your name to those that have already signed The Hague Declaration.  For those of you that want to know more about the Declaration, my commentary on it can be found here.

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might make interesting material.

I work for one of the 'big service and solutions' corporations. Their marketing arm keeps bugging me to give some of my time to teaching engineering and science in local schools; and the material above would be ideal for that.

But their development arm says that the amount of commercial trouble we would get into by flooding the market with this kind of stuff would expose the development commitments, and so it tells me not to.

A puzzle. 'Free' Digistan kids should have the material, wherever in the world they live. How to get it to them ?

In fact, the only employee of a major vendor (IBM) among the founders, Rob Wier, is a very late arrival to the group.
Rob Weir is also an employee of IBM according to his blog's "about" page. (His blog is off-line at the moment, but I just double-checked my memory using Google's cache, which was only a few days old.)


Same guy; I just got the "i" and the "e" backwards in the first of the two times I used his name.  I've now corrected it to "Rob Weir."

  -  Andy

I do believe that seekingalpha piece you cited was satire along the lines of the site. They are both quite over-the-top, but still manage to suck many people in. I wasn't sure about the piece you cited when I first read it. I figured it was either a *really* *bad* piece or satire, but I was leaning toward the former. Until I read the comments. The author posted several comments that IMHO made it quite clear the piece was satire. For example, this little gem: "Do you think that English has been somehow influenced by Europeans and terrorists? This worries me. If they attack the language Jesus spoke, who knows what they would do next." You may have a legitimate fear about people unfairly characterizing Digistan. But I think this author was poking fun of such people. As such he is more likely friend than foe.

Actually, I think it's likely a genuine article, as it's consistent with Dennis Byron's past pieces.  And I believe that the comments you're referring to are spoofs by visitors clever enough to be able to log in as Dennis.  I could be wrong, but if you read back through some of Byron's prior pieces you might come to the same conclusion.

  -  Andy

You're probably right about Dennis Byron being serious. But the fact that I was seriously entertaining the thought that it was satire while reading the body of the post (prior to reading comments) speaks volumes about it's (lack of) quality! And I am flabbergasted that somebody would allow comments to remain by people who were impersonating him. Jim