IS 29500: A standard with appeal!

by Rick Jelliffe

The standard for OOXML, IS29500, was approved a few months back with 75% of votes in favour, 14% against (for a breakdown, see this chart.) Some of the National Bodies who voted no are very determined in their opposition: South Africa, Brazil and India have lodged appeals, as allowed under the JTC1 process. [JTC1 = Joint Technical Committee 1 (Information Technology) of ISO and IEC.]

The details of the Indian appeal is uncertain, but the South African and Brazilian appeals are available online.

It will be quite interesting to see how this goes. An IEC spokesman has been quoted
This is the first such appeal after a BRM process in ISO/IEC JTC 1, although appeals occur regularly in other technical committees

How is it likely to go? I don't want to go into each objection systematically, but I'd like to suggest some things I expect may frame the appeal resolution.

Cassandra with a Cigar

Before I start, a quick comment on politics. You would expect that appeals will be taken quite seriously by JTC1.

This has been a very contentious standard, everyone is aware of the politics, slurs and noise, high emotions and the genuine problems. Certainly, it has long been the expectation that there would be dissatisfaction no matter what the result: indeed, BRM convenor Alex Brown predicted it:

Be forewarned: the ISO process will “fail”

Speaking to fellow NB representatives, it is clear that lobbying (in many directions) is intensifying as the BRM nears. It would be na├»ve to expect anything else, I suppose. It amuses me the degree of self-certainty both sides have (coupled with very high levels of mistrust). One corollary of this is that they both profess that the only thing that can undo them is a “failure of process”. Tweedledum believes their DIS is so good that only a “failure of process” can thwart it; Tweedledee, however, is convinced that the DIS is so deeply flawed that only a “failure of process” could allow it to become standard..

Note that Dr Brown's point is not that the process would necessarily be perfect, nor that NBs would not in their rights to make appeals, more that intemperate outbursts would not be tolerated during the BRM—the conduct of the BRM was the topic of that blog entry— but were on the cards for after.

And I personally welcome the appeals, because they are a good chance to get more clarity on issues. But to paraphrase Dr Brown, Be forewarned: the appeal process will “fail”; these are issues where there are quite strong views about how the world and institutions should operate which underlie, and to some extent select, the particular issues.

That there will be grandstanding later does not mean that the appeals themselves are mere grandstanding.

Keep them talking

Next, I'd like to draw a couple of lines in the sand, for setting expectations.

First, if an appeal concerns something that is specifically allowed or disallowed by the JTC1 Directives, it will not succeed. For example, the JTC1 Directives clause 13.1 says
The criteria for proposing an existing standard for the fast-track procedure is a matter for each proposer to decide.

Given that, I cannot see any objection of the form "The fast-track procedure is designed for blah blah and this goes against it" getting anywhere.

Second, to see the JTC1 process as an adversarial process where things can be won on a technicality is to fundamentally mistake its nature. It is not a court of law, it is a forum for formalized discussions aimed at agreement on the text and contents of documents. (Furthermore, these documents are not laws or legislations, they are voluntary standards.) In clause 1.2 of the JTC1 Directives it says:

These Directives shall be complied with in all respects and no deviations can be made without consent of the Secretaries-General.

These Directives are inspired by the principle that the objective in the development of International Standards should be the achievement of consensus between those concerned rather than a decision based on counting votes.

[Note: Consensus is defined as a general agreement, characterized by the absence of sustained opposition to substantial issues by any important part of the concerned interests and by a process that involves seeking to take into account the views of all parties concerned and to reconcile any conflicting arguments. Consensus need not imply unanimity. ...]

The interesting parts of that are first that variations are possible with the consent of the Secretaries-General; this is the kind of provision you would expect from a mature standards organization (created about 60 years ago) that has had to weather challenging standards before: a chain of authority but a process to prevent the goals of the organization being thwarted by technicalities. Second, that sustained opposition is a serious thing. And third that the response to conflicting arguments is supposed to be processes of reconciliation: you have to leave the win/lose mindset at the door and think of win/win (where no party in win/win necessarily gets everything they want in the form and timetable that they want, but they can get something.)

So from these, you would expect that even where a National Body had a legitimate grievance that it had been discriminated against during some committee work in this case the BRM, the result is likely to be not that any standard would be invalidated, but that the NB would be urged to participate in maintenance of the standard with the assurance that the situation would be monitored. (And this is especially true where the issue concerns non-normative text, or additional text, or wordsmithing, or anything that can be done by maintenance)

Messer im Kopf

Someone asked me what kinds of things would be legitimate causes for an appeal to succeed.

Frankly, I find it very hard to see how conduct of the BRM can invalidate a vote of NBs (especially as the Directives give a lot of discretion to the convenor, where there were ISO and IEC officials advising directly, where the goals of the BRM are so limited, and where the final ballot shows that the BRM's goal of an improved text was successful.)

I think if there had been a proven miscount of the revised ballot, that would be a ground for an appeal (again, I don't think it would result in failure of the standard, just a correct count of the already cast ballots.)

And if the endorsed text from the Editor differed from a NB's view of what the editor's instructions meant, that would be grounds for an appeal (but again, not resulting in a failure: probably resulting in the issue being dealt with by maintenance.) [I should say, I think ITTF would be remiss to not release the endorsed text of IS29500 to NBs as soon as it was ready, and certainly with time for it to inform NBs before the appeal deadline is closed: this has been an expectation of mainstream delegates from several different NBs.]

If there was a reasonable allegation of cartelization, I think that would be reasonable grounds for appeal. This is where some NB's legitimate requirements had been deliberately ignored by other NBs, as a kind of gang. However I would expect this far more to apply to ballots that rejected a standard because where a standard was accepted without some material, the forum for reconciliation would be be the maintenance process.

New information about some showstopping technical flaw would be grounds for an appeal. It would have to be something fairly fundamental (for example, if the ZIP format utterly did not operate the way the spec said it did, undermining OPC and everything built on it) and something which could not be dealt with by maintenance.

If some SC was hijcked by multinational loons who wanted to standardize a perpetual motion machine, or by cannibals who wanted to standardize some headhunting apparatus, then that would certainly be a reputation problem. I am struggling a bit here: obviously JTC1 does not deal with machinery!

I don't see how JTC1 can find reputation arguments very compelling: it will be hard for them to tease out any real reputation issues from the fake ones. I saw this week that someone just automatically added the ISO and IEC Secretaries-General to the list of people to be suspected of corruption, and this is even before they have actually been involved AFAIK! It is like reading "How to win friends and influence people" by Chicken Little.

So I apologize if I am a bit fuzzy: but again it goes to ISOs approach (as I conceive it, at least) that the purpose of the appeals is to provide forums for formalized discussions to continue. That the Directives use the language of issues getting "resolution" rather than of sides "winning" should be a central part of understanding the process.


A good indication of how appeals will be handled is how alleged "contradictions" were handled during the ISO Linux API standardization. That there was an almost total overlap of this with the ISO POSIX ABI, clearly overlap in application area or even details was not a contradiction. However there was a particular real contradiction, which related to different function signature. So the issue became, this is clearly a contradiction, but is it big enough to cause the ISO Linux standard to be cancelled. Clearly not. Instead it is labelled, and more discussions between the Linux and POSIX people (if they still exist!) would be encouraged.

So the lesson from that, I think, is that the idea that a small issue can be a "spanner in the works" is unrealistic. There needs to be a sense of proportionality between the technical damage and the response to it.


I think the most challenging issue I have seen from in the appeals so far revolve around the issue of unfairness, in particular this seems to be a thing of the Brazilians. It seems to me that there need for fairness goes to the heart of ISO procedures, however, so it is quite important.

I think there is an assumption that there is some kind of "poison fruit" doctrine operating, where an earlier SNAFU would prevent later processing of the standard. But I don't see that in the JTC1 Directives. I am certainly not saying that this would not be a consideration, just that I cannot see why it would be compelling. It would presumably be one of the technical or administrative "principles" which could be discussed under the s11.1.3 procedures.

This is because of the big bottom line here: the National Bodies have voted.

Don't shoot the messager

I suppose this would go without saying, but I suspect it would be difficult for appeals which are really objections to the JTC1 Directives succeeding. The people who characterize convenor discretion as "making the rules up as you go along" would surely be appalled at retrospectively changing the rules! The resolution of such an appeal would be "take it up with JTC1".

Who votes at the BRM?

As I have said, I think having legalistic rather than goal-responsive view of the administration of the JTC1 Directives is a mistake. But some people take that as a cop-out, so I would like to point out something about one of the procedural issues that has been raised by some. It goes down to the issue of who is allowed to vote at the BRM: P members of SC34 or both P and O members. (If you don't know the difference, nations can registers as Observers or Participants for a particular technical committee. They have different rights and obligations.)

It has been pointed out that clause 13.8 says about the conduct of fast-track BRMs:
At the ballot resolution group meeting, decisions should be reached preferably by consensus. If a vote is unavoidable the vote of the NBs will be taken according to normal JTC1 procedures.

Some astute detectives trace this back to clauses elsewhere about P members voting. However, in this particular case clause 13.7 establishes who the NBs are:

NBs of the relevant SC shall appoint to the ballot resolution group one or more representative who are well aware of the NB's position. NBs having voted negatively, whether or not an NB of the relevant SC, have a duty to delegate a representative to the ballot resolution meeting.

This is quite an important clause, for people wanting some insight into the process, because

  • it is inclusive, not exclusive: it tries to get as many of the NBs at the table as possible

  • it puts an obligation on the delegations to be properly prepared (which is not to say that there is any blame attached to delegates who are specialists or novices or last-minute additions: there always will be a certain number of these): I think this has some implication against claims about size and logistical problems with review and BRM proposals

  • it also explains why poor NBs, if they are trying to be scrupulous with the Directives, could prefer abstain over simple negative, "yes" rather than "no with comments" (as a conditional yes). It is expensive to send a delegation.


Jean-Philippe Martin
2008-06-02 06:46:20
Since I read everything there is about ODF and OOXML, I find your side of the story refreshing and it give some "common sense" to it. My point of view though is that OOXML has been abandonned by Microsoft. They will adopt ODF in Office 2007 and not OOXML until the next version of Office. And they are joining the OASIS committee to advance the ODF standard. The rest is pretty debatable.
Rick Jelliffe
2008-06-02 06:59:22
JP: Thanks.

I don't think "abandoned" is the correct word. I have criticized their decision to delay.

What I suspect is happening is that now the vote is over, they are readjusting their timetable: if they already have better (or fuller) support for ODF than most (I am not saying all) of their competitors, and if ODF's magical interoperability will only start flowering in the post-ODF 1.2 timeframe, they can afford to be a little relaxed (or even lax) it seems to me.

What I hope will happen is that during this time the SC34 maintenance and the OASIS ODF participation efforts will combine to flush out more improvements that can feed back into the ODF and OOXML standards.

Rick Jelliffe
2008-06-04 09:25:17
Dr Durusau pointedly does not blog or comments, but he is in the habit of making little single page documents giving his thoughts at the time; unlike a blog, he doesn't take comments and he frequently removes them when they have served their purpose in the conversation, or where events have moved on.

He has a little paper at Appealing ISO/IEC 29500 ( which is perhaps a little too terse to make much sense, unless you already know his POV. He thinks the JTC1 Directives are lousy and in need of a re-write, and he thinks that they allow too much discretion to JTC1 functionaries rather than the NBs of the SC.

I think he sees the failures of PAS and Fast-track as indicative of the problems with the system that the JTC1 Directives have bred, but to use a medical analogy that is perhaps too strong, if the fast-track problem is the symptom, and the JTC1 Directives are the disease, the cause of the disease is lack of NB activity to reform the JTC1 directives.

You can see his habit of thought there: that people get caught up in the visible minutae at the expense of figuring out how to get to the heart of the problem and fix it. I don't have a strong opinion on whether he is right, on this one.

2008-06-04 09:31:07
What is Messer im Kopf? A german movie?
Rick Jelliffe
2008-06-04 10:02:33
Andre: Yes, a brilliant one. Ganz is colossal!

It deals with sorting out unpleasant conflicting versions of truth