W3C Response to UK Cabinet Office Open Standards Consultation

Set 1

1. How does this definition of open standard compare to your view of what makes a standard 'open'?

W3C Recommendations are often cited as the leading example of open standards and there is a reason for that. They are created by the relevant stakeholders within the W3C Process. Some of the principles governing its process have been made explicit in Wikipedia page on Open Standards. For example, all W3C technical reports are public and freely downloadable, W3C invites public review, and W3C Working Groups are required by process to be responsive to public feedback. There are several steps where the Director evaluates whether all rules have been followed, minority viewpoints respected, and feedback treated fairly. An open and fair process is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to produce an open standard.

To be usable, a standard must be complete. If the open standard covers only a part of a technology and the technology only works once proprietary or less open extensions have been added, the Standard is not really open.

The Specifications must be published without undue restrictions and allow for an unrestricted implementation. What undue restrictions are depends on the sector of technology. Standards developed by a small number of dominant parties may incorporate multiple patents held by those players. In such a situation, success is certainly possible, as demonstrated, for example, by the GSM standards – but such success is only available to those same players. A new entrant to the market would find many patents barring access to that playing field and it is questionable whether the success of GSM could be repeated under current conditions. This barrier to entry does not apply to the Web which is characterised by its atomistic market. For the Web, its entire technical community, including industry, has decided that W3C Recommendations should be implementable without additional conditions or royalty payment. This is secured by the W3C Patent Policy, which includes Royalty-Free (RF) Licensing Requirements. The Web is basic infrastructure, has a global scale, has a huge number of actors -small and big- and relies on the broadest distribution possible of its technologies and specifications.

Chapter 1's focus on IPR obfuscates the fact that for some technologies the process, minority protection, and public feedback mechanisms are not purely cosmetic but are at least as important as the IPR regime under which it is produced. EIF 2.0 was a step forward in this respect.

2. What will the Government be inhibited from doing if this definition of open standards is adopted for software interoperability, data and document formats across central government?

In the area of procurement, especially in IT, government policy should not be an inhibitor. Every procurement decision represents a trade-off. We strongly believe that by setting the default to open standards, government puts the burden of argument for exceptions where it belongs. Defaulting to an open standard created through a process that includes public scrutiny provides good assurances against vendor lock-in. In cases where proprietary technologies are well-established and in widespread use, arguments can still be put forward for their continued use. We see this approach —open standards by default with consideration of exceptions— to be an entirely positive and pragmatic approach.

3. For businesses attempting to break into the government IT market, would this policy make things easier or more difficult – does it help to level the playing field?

The question raised is not as neutral as it first appears. Where the government follows a certain industry policy, it may argue for technology not (yet) covered by open standards. But in general, open standards are the primary instrument for levelling the technology playing field. Competition builds on this common infrastructure. This means all actors have similar starting conditions, big and small, slow and fast. Because an offer is not tied to a controlled technology, the market remains open and accessible for all. As an example, consider Semantic Web technology and its most successful manifestation: the linked open data movement. British SMEs such as Talis/Kasabi, Seme4, Epimorphics and Garlik have either been launched or evolved significantly through their use of the RDF open standard. These companies (plus TSO and others) are able to compete by offering a variety of services such as hosting, consultancy and training. The standard that underpins their work is a common platform on which they can build.

4. How would mandating open standards for use in government IT for software interoperability, data and document formats affect your organisation?

W3C is a producer of open standards, and thus this mandate would likely increase recognition and promote deployment of our work. As a result, there would be greater demand for software that complies with our Recommendations. It is important to note that W3C is nearly alone in mandating the Royalty Free (RF) approach (for the reasons given in the answer to 1.1 above). If the UK government were to mandate an RF-only approach, we might see an increase in demand for W3C services. Or we might see other organisations start to adopt non-exclusive RF regimes. There is a competitive market in standards development so a move to open standards does not create a new monopoly. Our direct competitors include the IETF, OASIS, ETSI, the Open Geospatial Consortium, and many others.

5. What effect would this policy have on improving value for money in the provision of government services?

The cost of government services will decrease for two reasons.

First: increased competition. A provider of services based on open standards knows that customers can readily switch to a new supplier with minimal disruption. This leads to a greater emphasis on value, either through lower prices (typical for standard goods) or enhanced services at the same price.

Second: off the shelf tools. Adoption of this policy will make it easier for the users of government services to access them with off-the-shelf tools that they may already have (e.g., as part of an operating system) or be able to find readily through participation on the Internet. This is also a benefit for the government. If the government were to mandate a proprietary system for citizens to use the governmental services, it would effectively force the citizens also to acquire the proprietary system or at least some software to access it. This amounts to a tax that benefits a private party — the software vendor who controls the mandated technology. Mandating the use of open standards completely eliminates this issue.

6. Would this policy support innovation, competition and choice in delivery of government services?

In just over 20 years, the World Wide Web has revolutionised the way in which businesses operate, people communicate, and governments interact with their citizens. The Web is perhaps the most successful platform for innovation to date, and largely because it is free to all and built on open standards. It presents almost no barrier at all to the introduction and near-instant dissemination of new ideas. Mandating a level playing field will generate competition among entrepreneurs so they distinguish themselves through speed and creativity.

7. In what way do software copyright licences and standards patent licences interact to support or prevent interoperability?

In The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Eric Raymond explains advantages of open source development models and why people choose them. Open source software (OSS), as we know it today, would not be possible without the Internet and the Web that allows a smooth organisation of the Bazaar. But as the Bazaar is sometimes wild and disorganised, with branches, forks and flamewars, there is a benefit to having a stable foundation on which the diversity flourishes. Often, but not exclusively, this foundation is rooted in standardisation. Open source projects often are very good citizens when it comes to implementing and conforming to standards. So OSS has some standardisation-friendly culture in general and some dependency on standardisation.

The Web and the Internet are not only facilitators for OSS development, but also targets. That means many OSS projects target things that are done over the Internet using this platform. But the Web and the Internet are no longer limited to desktop computing. The Web is converging with other industries, such as mobile, audiovisual, and television. OSS implementers are eager to enter these markets, but there is a culture clash. Often these markets are dominated by large, established companies that rely on patents. This conflicts with the RF assumptions found in the traditional Internet community.

Why do they clash? The open source model relies on the fact that software is created by many, can be adapted and customised. The patent system relies on one person being responsible for the use of the patent. A licence to one developer does not cover licensing for all developers. Not all developers have a commercial model behind their activity and thus cannot easily manage royalty payments (our answer to question 8 has more to say on this). If a standard is covered by a patent or is in a FRAND system potentially covered by a patent, an open source developer risks his/her economic survival by implementing it because the patent owner can always go back and ask for past royalties. Those royalties could easily apply to everyone that has downloaded and used the open source software that they will have assumed, rightly at the time, was available for free.

8. How could adopting (Fair) Reasonable and Non Discriminatory ((F)RAND) standards deliver a level playing field for open source and proprietary software solution providers?

A FRAND standard, however the patent holder defines 'fair and reasonable,' is going to be ignored by the open source community, as unimplementable. The open source community is not a legal entity and cannot pay any royalty. In practical terms, a royalty of £0.01 is as much a barrier as one of £1m.

9. Does selecting open standards which are compatible with a free or open source software licence exclude certain suppliers or products?

Open standards do not mandate open source software. The Opera Browser demonstrates strong support for open Web Standards, for example, but is closed source. The requirement that standards be compatible with OSS licensing does not exclude vendors from using those standards to create closed source software.

That said, a requirement for open standards which are compatible with a free or open source software licence will exclude the entire European Standardisation System from supplying standards for the UK government because all three European Standardisation Organizations work on a FRAND basis. As we have seen in answers 1.7 and 1.8, open source cannot cope with FRAND standards, unless some additional assurance is made to the open source developer. The European Commission is organising a Workshop on this topic in November 2012 in Brussels. W3C is participating in those efforts.

10. Does a promise of non-assertion of a patent when used in open source software alleviate concerns relating to patents and royalty charging?

This suggestion may be worth further consideration, though the devil is in the details. Such a provision would be a tremendous positive discrimination for open source software and the service-oriented business models behind it thus creating a significant disadvantage for closed source software manufacturers that deliver perfectly compatible software. This can lead to a considerable distortion of the market.

11. Should a different rationale be applied when purchasing off-the-shelf software solutions than is applied when purchasing bespoke solutions?

We see no reason for that. Custom solutions have all the standard bricks they need to provide an overall open solution. If a solutions provider identifies a need to extend a standard then they are always welcome to bring their work to the open Standards Development Organisation. The main questions for evaluation remain: Does the software accept data in open formats? Should the software change, how does the government get its data out again?

12. In terms of standards for software interoperability, data and document formats, is there a need for the Government to engage with or provide funding for specific committees/bodies?

Yes. The standards process is driven by consensus between the various stakeholders, be they data publishers, software vendors, service providers or service users. As a large and highly influential user of IT systems, it is only right that the Government is part of the consensus-building process that defines the open standards.

Like any organisation, the effort to produce more and better open standards at W3C, and to back those standards up with test suites and validators, is always limited in scope by the resources available to achieve our goal of leading the Web to its full potential. More support without too much bureaucratic burden would be very welcome. This includes sending engineers to represent UK government views in standardisation discussions.

13. Are there any are other policy options which would meet the described outcomes more effectively?

In addition to this national policy, the UK should become a driver for a pan-European policy with a similar spirit.

Set 2

1. What criteria should the Government consider when deciding whether it is appropriate to mandate particular standards?

The key elements of an "open standard" have been covered in the answers to chapter 1. Furthermore, the government should consider availability of tools conformant to the standard, fitness for purpose and of cause the UK industry policy. To this we would add that it is appropriate to mandate an open standard where adherence to the standard can be readily verified. This might be through the provision by the relevant standards body of a validator such as the HTML and CSS validators, a set of data (a test suite) against which software can be tested (available for all Semantic Web technologies and more), or conformance guidelines such as those for Accessibility. In the absence of such readily identifiable test mechanisms, mandatory use of any open standard may be hard or impossible to enforce or verify.

2. What effect would mandating particular open standards have on improving value for money in the provision of government services?

We have answered this partly already with the response to Chapter 1 question 5. From a purchasing point of view, mandating standards provides a means of assessing whether a procurement contract has been successfully fulfilled, even where the service is provided by closed source solutions. From a supplier side, it provides at least part of the specification for the product or service. Suppliers can compete on the added value of their products whilst remaining interoperable should a new supplier be chosen. The mandatory use of a defined, say, XML-based format, as a data exchange standard would ensure that many suppliers would be able to compete effectively to provide a given service since there is a substantial body of software and expertise centred on this massively adopted open standard. Such competition gives customers more value for their money.

3. Are there any legal or procurement barriers to mandating specific open standards in the UK Government's IT?

There may be competing European Standards that are mandated via EU legislation. Apart from that it is rather to the contrary that mandating a non-open standard may have legal implications as explained in Chapter 1 question 5. There we expressed our concern that if a royalty-bearing standard is mandated, this would create a kind of a tax that benefits a private legal or natural person.

4. Could mandation of competing open standards for the same function deliver interoperable software and information at reduced cost?

That is very likely. Many applications use standards as a means of exchange rather than inherently within the system so that switching from one standard to another in a piece of software might be a trivial task of simply adding a new API. A crucial step in the path to a W3C Recommendation is the Candidate Recommendation phase that requires the working group to demonstrate two independent, interoperable implementations of every feature in the specification (the IETF has a similar requirement of 'running code'). The emphasis here is on the function of the software which in all probability could be tailored to work with an alternative standard with little effort. If a service provider is aware of competing standards for the same function it is highly likely that they would offer support for both as a feature.

5. Could mandation of open standards promote anti-competitive behaviour in public procurement?

No, provided the standard is truly open and not vendor-specific hiding behind some organisational fig leaf (See Chapter 1 question 1). Mandating open standards encourages competition since anyone can build software to an open standard. As already noted, in the W3C case, standards pass through an implementation phase in the service of interoperability.

6. How would mandation of specific open standards for government IT software interoperability, data and document formats affect your organisation/business?

There would be no direct effect although potentially it would encourage greater involvement in the standards creation process.

7. How should the Government best deal with the issue of change relating to legacy systems or incompatible updates to existing open standards?

Backwards compatibility is a feature of W3C standards. A state of the art browser capable of rendering HTML5 can also handle HTML 2. New versions of standards that are incompatible with older ones tend to be developed in response to problems caused with the original specification. In such cases, features are first deprecated, i.e., flagged as being candidates for exclusion from future versions, but not the version under development. Where a new standard is needed to fulfil a role already covered by an old standard, it will have a new name and a different development path.

8. What should trigger the review of an open standard that has already been mandated?

Implementation experience showing that the standard is in some way deficient or prevents innovation. In the latter case, it should be necessary to point to an alternative open standard, and not simply say that "we can do a better job if we abandon all standards." If a mandated standard is deficient and no alternative exists, then the government should support/actively participate in the creation of an improved open standard.

A mandated open standard can become outdated. An efficient communication system that allows the services to complain about compatibility issues with the rest of the world should trigger a review of the decision of mandating a certain standard.

9. How should the Government strike a balance between nurturing innovation and conforming to standards?

Often, innovation happens on top of mandated open standards, for example in the user interface or in performance (but not in matters critical to interoperability). Thus, in some cases, it is easy to maintain a balance. Other ways to strike a balance include monitoring the evolution of standards, and demanding backwards compatibility support in software.

Discussion of both the EIF and the Reform of the European Standardisation have shown that sometimes government procurement should opt for a new emerging technology to help with adoption and to obtain critical mass for such technology. In such cases, civil servants should help and be involved with transforming this technology into an open standard for the benefit of everybody and to start the next round of innovation on the leveled playing field.

10. How should the Government confirm that a solution claiming conformity to a standard is interoperable in practice?

This raises the issue of certification. W3C does not formally certify implementations as conforming to our Recommendations. We do, however, offer practical test suites and validation software. The IT industry prefers this approach by far over the audit and consultant-approved paper certification. W3C Recommendations include sections that define conformance.

11. Are there any are other policy options which would meet the objective more effectively?

We believe that adherence to standards, and involvement in the standards-setting process itself, is the best way for Government to proceed.

Set 3

1. Is the proposed UK policy compatible with European policies, directives and regulations (existing or planned) such as the European Interoperability Framework version 2.0 and the reform proposal for European Standardisation?

We believe so. EIF does not exclude mandating RF Standards. But there may be a conflict with the European Standardisation System that only works under FRAND conditions. It may be a goal for the government to influence its own standardisation organisations and its European Partners to offer an RF option for European Norms(EN).

2. Will the open standards policy be beneficial or detrimental for innovation and competition in the UK and Europe?

Very much beneficial. It is the best way to avoid vendor lock-in and anti-competitive practices. Furthermore it fosters the ability of UK business to compete globally.

One might look at the experience of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6 as an example of this. When it was first released in 2000 it was hailed as being ahead of its time. It had a number of extra features that made it the browser of choice for the overwhelming majority of users. However, some of those extra features were not part of the standard and so Web sites had to be created with that specific browser in mind. Other browser developers followed the standards more closely, notably Opera and Mozilla's Firefox, emphasising that they supported a range of new standards that, at the time, Internet Explorer did not. By the end of the decade, IE6 was not a source of innovation but a brake on innovation. Web developers felt unable to use some of the new standards, such as SVG and more advanced CSS features, because of the lack of support in IE6. Microsoft introduced a workaround so that developers could code around the deficiencies in this specific browser. No other browser has had to do this, but developers responded. See, for example, IE6 CSS Fixer v0.95: starter kit and IE6Fix: a jQuery plugin to fix Internet Explorer 6 bugs.

With the release of Internet Explorer 9 in 2011, the landscape changed dramatically as the new browser was promoted as being much more standards compliant (it supports SVG and a lot of the new CSS features). Web developers now typically charge extra for IE6 support. Moreover, Microsoft themselves actively encourage the few remaining IE6 users to upgrade.

IE9 now sits alongside Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera as a standards compliant browser with many features that a lot of users welcome. Browser vendors compete atop the standards: for ease of use, rendering speed and quality. Each browser has its strengths — but they all support the same core set of Web standards and are working together within the W3C HTML Working Group.

To quote from Microsoft's launch press release of March 2011: "Developers can now build faster, more immersive websites that feel like native applications using HTML5..." Microsoft's site dedicated to its browser, lists its many innovations proving, we believe, the use of open standards promotes innovation and does not stifle it in any way.

3. Are there any are other policy options which would meet the objectives described in this consultation paper more effectively?

There are always other ways of achieving goals, however, the success of the Web itself is based on the agreement between parties unknown to each other that a small set of rules will be followed. As the technology deepens and the tasks become more complex, further agreement is necessary to maintain that interoperability, but the crucial point is that interoperability is maintained and that innovation is focussed on delivery of products and services that can fit in with existing systems.

It is also highly noteworthy that strong support for royalty-free, open standards, such as Web technologies, provides a firm foundation for the broader aim of bridging the digital divide. The Web enables two-way communication between the government and its citizens through computers, mobile devices, Web-enabled televisions and more. Almost all recent examples of all of these devices come with a free Web browser.

For software interoperability, data and document formats, W3C firmly believes that the comply or explain approach to the use of open standards encapsulated in the proposed policy is absolutely the right way to go.