Berlin – Open standardisation processes, their problems and their value for economy and society were the subject of discussion at a conference on 17 April at the German Ministry of Economy and Technology in Berlin.
The discussion was organised by the Internet Society as a pre-event for the meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force later this summer.
While government officials at the meeting underlined their general support for open standards as a basis for technical development and competition, they also pointed to blurred lines about what is open and to the issue of powerful market players being able to game standardisation processes. The German government at the meeting also announced a consultation on the future role of the UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU), one of the more traditional standardisation bodies.
Everybody today talks about open standards, said Ulrich Sandl, deputy assistant undersecretary at the Ministry of Economy and Technology. “Certainly nobody would tell you he has a proprietary standard.” But the answer to what “open” means in “open standards” is heavily “dependent on who answered the question.”
What’s in an Open Standard?
For some, Sandl said, it just means that everybody could without discrimination use a standardised technology. For small software companies, openness means they could develop their own products based on such a standard without being forced to consider patents at all. In public procurement, an open standard mainly has to assure non-dependency of one supplier of hardware or services. Sandl said the necessary differentiation would not lend itself easily to political discussions. Yet it is necessary to check on standardisation processes, which are dominated by large market players, in order to push complete business models.
Jan Krancke, vice president of regulatory strategy and economics at Deutsche Telekom, said, “Apple or Google just set up subsidiaries in 20 countries and thus have 20 times more votes in ETSI than we have.” ETSI is the European Telecommunication Standardization Institute, which works mainly on mobile standards. “We have to look into what is actually happening in the bodies of the standardisation venues,” he said.
Sandl said: “If you pour enough money into standardisation processes at ETSI or ITU, for example, you can get the standards you want. It is impossible for many of our entrepreneurs to compete on that field,” he said. The German government, in an effort to push secure e-mail nationally has stepped up with a national-only standard that now heavily criticised by security experts.
IETF and Open Stand: More Resistant to Domination?
Martin Stiemerling, researcher at NEC laboratories and a director of the “transport area” in the IETF, acknowledged the possibility of gaming in standardisation processes, but promoted the IETF model as more resistant. “Chances that the process is not gamed are bigger in the IETF,” he said.
Working group chairs overseeing what is called the “rough consensus” process of the dozens of working groups in one of seven areas from “applications” to “security” were able to judge the quality of support for a specific proposal.
A “clever working group chair” would be able to see through efforts by large companies to push for their preferred proposal by sending 20 people, Stiemerling said. Moreover, the accessibility for everybody to IETF processes – not only large and small companies, but non-governmental organisations, governments or public agencies alike, while sometimes making consensus difficult would provide for a “separation of powers.”
Even small companies could contribute in the IETF, said Olaf Kolkman, CEO of the Dutch software developer Nlnet Labs, and in fact could use the IETF process to shield technology from non-practising entities (patent trolls) by publishing it as internet drafts even outside of the standardisation process. Patent offices would use the IETF publication database when searching for “prior art.”
Klaus Birkenbihl, Board member of the ISOC German Chapter and involved in standardisation at the W3C, therefore described transparency and accessibility core criteria for open standards besides due processes, which all standardisation organisations have. Large companies want to control markets, yet they also use the participative models of the open standardisation bodies.
“Companies like Google, Mozilla build communities of people who deliver ideas for free,” Birkenbihl said. “This is what open standardisation bodies have done for a long time.”
Especially beneficial for smaller and medium-sized companies, he added, are the royalty-free licence policies such as the W3C relied on. While obliging all participants to disclose intellectual property rights in the standardisation process – and being reluctant to standardise heavily patent-protected technology – accepts also RAND (reasonable and non-discriminatory) licences. Birkenbihl asked to check funding of the work in standardisation bodies.
“We spend a lot of money in traditional standardisation bodies, while the open standardisation bodies cannot attract enough people to get engaged in their processes,” he said.
Open Stand, ITU Future and Governments’ Role
In an effort to promote what they call a modern standardisation paradigm the IETF, W3C and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) last year published an open stand declaration. Open stand clearly was a reaction to the calls by some government to make standards developed at the ITU mandatory in the future International Telecommunication Regulations (ITR).
The attempt failed together with a consensus over the ITR in general, but the whole ITR discussion highlighted the relevance of thought-to-be pure technology discussions for societies as a whole, said the chair of the ISOC German Chapter, Hans Peter Dittler. The discussions at the World Conference on International Telecommunication had illustrated how technical standards can be used by governments in an attempt to exercise control on the internet.
Secretary of State Hans Joachim Otto, assured participants in Berlin that his ministry would continue to engage in the discussions over government control on the internet. “Freedom of the net is not a given, we have to continue step up for it internationally,” he said, adding that the German government also rejected attempts for governmental intervention in the operational aspects of internet management.
One result of the WCIT process from a German point of view was as a heightened interest from the administration to continue multi-stakeholder consultations on upcoming conferences.
A stakeholder consultation to be held soon, according to Sandl, is on the future role of the ITU. There was a feeling that the ITU was desperately looking for new areas of work with heavy support from many developing countries and China. Depending on the relevance of the ITU as a standardising venue for the industry, the German government would consider how much attention to pay to the organisation. Germany until the last ITU Plenipotentiary Conference was in the group of the largest financial contributors (paying 30 units), but has cut its budget once already (now paying 25 units). Such discussions on the WCIT follow-up and ITU funding are also underway in the US.