What Does ‘Open’ Mean?

 Have you discovered The Alexandria Project?

Daniel in the Lion's Den; Rubens; c. 1615, courtesy of Krscal and the Wkimedia CommonsIf you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably have an interest in 'openness' of some kind: open standards and open source software most likely, but you may also feel strongly about openness in other technology-enabled areas, like open data or open government - or openness as a guiding principle, no matter what the digital terrain. And if your interest has taken you into the debates that surround any of these types of openness, you're probably also aware that openness is a term that not everyone defines the same way, or across all situations.

The debate over what 'openness' should mean in the standards arena has been around for a long time - perhaps as long as a hundred years. But in order to understand the current debate, it's important to realize that we are in phase two of that dialogue. 

In the first phase, the definition of openness was pretty well established and nailed to the wall, following the evolution and formalization of the global standards infrastructure. The high level result was the principle of “RAND” terms (the RAND standing for reasonable and non-discriminatory terms), or FRAND terms (adding an F for “Fair,” if you hail from Europe).  These terms are backed up by fairly universally accepted process rules for the conduct of standards development in the global standards bodies. In the United States, compliance with the rules is supervised by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which until recently accredited almost all U.S. standards setting organizations.

And then consortia came along, followed by the Internet and the Web, and to some the old definitions no longer seemed to fit so well.

Today, the definition of what an ‘open standard’ should mean is passing from the academic to the economic realm, as multiple governments (such as the U.K.) are redefining that term for purposes of public procurement. The consequences can be huge not only economically, but also in the disruptive effects they may have in reordering the competitive positions of dominant and smaller vendors.

Have YOU Discovered the Alexandria Project?

A Tale of Treachery and Technology

For that reason, after writing and publishing 68 issues over the past year of my eJournal, Standards Today, I’ve dedicated almost an entire issue to the question of what ‘open standards’ should mean. Some of the articles have already appeared in earlier forms in this blog, and others not. The new article that you may find to be of greatest interest is the Feature Article, which is titled Openness and Legitimacy in Standards Development.

In this article, I trace the history of the development of openness definitions back from the beginning, and then describe in detail both the goals and the definitions of open standards that appear in a number of key policies

The documents in which those policies are implemented are the World Trade Organizations Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, which seeks to avoid the use of standards to advantage domestic vendors over their international competitors; version 1 (with a strict definition) and the hotly debated version 2 (with a diluted definition) of the European Interoperability Framework (EIF), which controls communications among the governments of EU member state; the new U.K. Cabinet Office policy (perhaps the most strict definition to be adopted by a national government to date); and Office of Management and Budget Circular A-119, which instructs all U.S. federal agencies in their annual purchase of hundreds of billions of dollars of standards-compliant products. OMB is considering amending or supplementing OMB, and earlier this year solicited public comments on whether, and how, it should do so. (You can find the comments that I submitted in the issue as well).  The article includes a table that contrasts each of these policies on a term by term basis.
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The complete issue is now posted to ConsortiumInfo.org, and you can find it here, where you can also find downloadable PDF copies of the individual articles and of the entire issue. 

Standards Today is free, and is distributed electronically to over 7,000 academic, government, industry and individual subscribers around the world.  If you’re not already on the list and would like to be added to it, you can find a subscription form here.

As I say in each issue at the end of my introductory Editor’s Note, I hope you enjoy this issue.  But either way, it’s always great to hear what you think. Let me know, why don’t you? My email address is andrew.updegrove@gesmer.com.