How to further improve the world of open standards

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Today is World Standards Day (almost everywhere in the world ;) and as I mentioned in an earlier standard day anniversary post, I like open standards and the benefits they bring to humanity.

To me, they are a first class public service. Much like people can take a public bus to go from some street to a stadium, they can also use Wifi, IP, TCP, HTTP, HTML, etc, to go from one place on the net to another.

These same folks pay for the development of their bus lines and the tons of standards that surround the public transport sector (including the vehicles) through their taxes and their passes, and although they pay for their ISP subscriptions, very little comes from their taxes in terms of net standards.

In other words: most if not all governments support the development of standards for public transport, and a myriad of other areas (housing, food, health, electricity, radio, etc), but their support for Internet and Web open standard development is close to nil.

Why is that so ?

First, it sounds like a paradox, since funding for better or more net open standards would accelerate the growth of ICT altogether (ICT is largely based on the net being there, plus other communication technologies), something everybody agrees is good for society. Governments also receive a mandate from their citizens to promote and support standardization, in compliance with the WTO (World Trade Organization) TBT guidelines for standardization, and we think we are compliant, in terms of transparency, neutrality, etc.

Also, for the end-users, the citizen, there is no difference: I know that I can buy a tire for my car in a different shop than the one where I bought the car because there is a independent global standard for tire size, thanks to that, the same way I know that I can buy a computer in one shop and connect to a computer coming from other shops in another country. Standards are hidden, just referred to by a name in a given context: tire size 170/55R14 or net protocols

Looking at the business model of the de-jure standardization system, there is also the added "anomaly" that the organizations involved not only receive direct government support (each gov has a budget line for official standard development) but their standard documents are almost never freely accessible, as it's the case for IETF or W3C for instance. So they have two lines of revenues we don't have in their budget: gov support and sales of standards.

I don't want to spend much time on the sales aspect: it's both historical and a stable situation unlikely to change as long as people are ready to pay for important standard specifications in electronic form. This is also a source of revenues hard to get away from one you have it (I heard once it amounts to about one third of the global budget of de-jure standardizers). Our situation is also quite unique since most net standards are and have always been available freely on the net, at no cost, as a way to further develop the net itself by various actors with no desire to pay for software specifications.

The absence of a net standardization government envelop is also historical, and amounts to the infrastructure itself (the cables, the antennas, etc) being privatized from the start, but before going further, let me emphasize one important point: our model of voluntary standards not funded by government has been extremely successful.  With no standardization government funds, IETF, W3C and others have created an infrastructure of enormous prosperity.

However, the Internet and the Web have become a core infrastructure of our societies,  and we now have infrastructure standardization issues of a different variety. They may be longer term.  They may be in the public interest, but not immediate economic interest of economic beneficiaries.  They may require long-term focus; beyond the interests of current funders.  Areas such as security, privacy, internationalization, robustness, or accessibility come to mind.

It's worth noting that the Internet and the Web have, through their couple of decades of evolution, received reasonable amount of public funding through R&D grants, e.g. from DARPA, the EC or the Japanese MITI, but most would say it was for the "innovation" part of the net development and the informal standardization coming with it. The net technologies comes from R&D, clearly, but they have now build their home in standardization land as well. W3C and IETF specifications have recently been made legally referenceable by government policies and procurements in Europe for instance, which proves our seriousness in this business

So we don't get standard government money, reserved for de-jure/official standardization organizations, but we can somehow get R&D money, provided that we show clearly the innovation side of our work. This situation, unfortunately, doesn't scale well, for various reasons. First, our standard agenda is not dictated by any government R&D planning, and although we have made efforts in getting closer to the policy makers in charge of the various gov R&D and standard agenda, there is no guarantee that our community will follow any of these policy needs when it comes to do it for real. Our agenda comes live from participants that decide to spent their time with us on a project.

For one thing, we'd need much more resources to close this gap and work on a useful gov/fora agenda convergence on a global scale, that is, in all countries with policy priorities in terms of net developments. But, as it happens, the state of the standardization agenda in our sector is behind schedule in terms of the potential needs of society at large, and as a result the priorities of both governments public policy maker and our more "private" communities are often the same. Everybody need things like Web Payments and true privacy or device independence to work (based on open standards) for yesterday.

The other issue with most gov R&D sources of funding is that they are open to everybody: academia, commercial companies, research labs, industries, etc, so the competition to get a given grant is fierce, with no guarantee to get anything from one year to the other. Why do we have to compete with everybody in the market, since we're an SDO, doing a public service, a necessity for the entire market to exist ? Plus, as anyone who has done one knows well, it costs of lot of resources to apply for any single R&D public grant, and this time spent preparing them is not paid for, so for SDOs this is time not spent on better or more standards.

Because of all these reasons, getting added gov funding would allow W3C to more easily hold together and maintain what we have achieved so far (that everybody uses but not a lot of people wants to fund), and more generally to do a better job at moving the Open Web Platform forward, against a wind of proprietary software platforms.

And it would cost a fraction of what government gives to the more official standardizers to get to a more balanced situation. The issue here is not so much one of unfair competition between standardization organizations, since there is work for everyone and we're all busy, it's more the issue of loss of quality in fora/consortia deliverables, risk of fragmentation of the net stacks, and going back to the pre-Internet days of online walled-garden services.

Fora and consortia net SDOs are small organizations: an order of magnitude less staff than the average de-jure SDO, and they also produce an order of magnitude less standards each year, but their impact is huge, nobody will disagree with that in any countries, so my message to governments around the world is simple: please consider investing a tenth of what your give yearly to your local de-jure organizations (e.g. to your national ISO members, or to an ITU mirror), and you won't be disappointed by the benefits you'll get back to your society.

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