Yesterday I was urging people to submit comments on the EU's interoperability framework. I mentioned that one of the important issues in this context was dealing with flawed standards, even – or especially – ones that claimed to be “open”.
When I wrote that, I was unaware that a rather weightier group of individuals had applied themselves to the same problem, and come up with something that I think will prove, in retrospect, rather significant: the Consegi Declaration:
We, the undersigned representatives of state IT organisations from Brazil, South Africa, Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba and Paraguay, note with disappointment the press release from ISO/IEC/JTC-1 of 20 August regarding the appeals registered by the national bodies of Brazil, South Africa, India and Venezuela. Our national bodies, together with India, had independently raised a number of serious concerns about the process surrounding the fast track approval of DIS29500 [OOXML]. That those concerns were not properly addressed in the form of a conciliation panel reflects poorly on the integrity of these international standards development institutions.
This is not just any old declaration by a bunch of disaffected hackers in the developing world: the signatories are all top government officials that have responsibility for open source in their respective countries. In other words, this is tantamount to an official, multi-governmental rebuke to the ISO for the way it has handled the OOXML process and the appeals arising out of it. That in itself, is pretty remarkable: normally governments are content to let standard-setting processes look after themselves. But something has changed irrevocably, as the closing remarks of the declaration make clear:
The issues which emerged over the past year have placed all of us at a difficult crossroads. What is now clear is that we will have to, albeit reluctantly, re-evaluate our assessment of ISO/IEC, particularly in its relevance to our various national government interoperability frameworks. Whereas in the past it has been assumed that an ISO/IEC standard should automatically be considered for use within government, clearly this position no longer stands.
The comment about the ISO's “inability to follow its own rules” is an amazing put-down, but the follow-on is even more extraordinary: it effectively says that the ISO has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the signatories, with the implication that they will be looking elsewhere for independent and objective codification of technology in the future.
I believe that this marks the beginning of the end of ISO's reign as the primary standards-setting organisation, at least as far as computing is concerned (for other industries, details of the standards-setting process, or even of the standards that result, may not be quite so crucial as they for the current phase of IT.) This is a view that I and others have articulated before, but one that was not really accompanied by any signs that things would actually change.
The Consegi Declaration, by contrast, is a very real statement of intent by some of the most important players in the international computing community. Collectively, they have sufficient power to make a difference to how standards are set globally. Specifically, they could at a stroke help establish some alternative forum as a rival to the ISO by throwing their weight behind it.
Against that background – and the fact that many within the free software world are deeply unhappy with the way the ISO has conducted the OOXML process – I think a serious debate needs to be started about what kind of standards-setting process is needed to produce useful, independent and truly open standards for the 21st century. The open source community also needs to start discussing with representatives of the Consegi nations and their supporters how a new international standards body might be formed to replace the current ISO – a radically different one that has at its heart the kind of bottom-up processes that have made the Internet and open source so strong and adaptable, rather than the sclerotic, top-down system that has been found so wanting in the whole OOXML fiasco.