Should regulations be made by unelected committees with no democratic oversight?

by Rick Jelliffe

I'm a democrat (not in the US capital D sense): I think regulations should be made transparently and fairly by wise heads with elected oversight, administrative checks and balances, and judicial appeal. So I am horrified by the idea that standards bodies should see themselves as lawmakers. Standards bodies make standards that fit technical, editorial and administrative criteria, under the particular articles of association of their group, different in each nation and body. When some part of some community would benefit from an agreed, formalized, vetted and published agreement about some technology, it becomes a standard.

To shift the job of standards-makers to being regulators seems terribly anti-democratic to me: standards bodies simply are not constituted in any way to be democratic. Standards bodies are technocratic, and rightly so, and making them regulatory agencies too could only replace the technocracy (of harmless drudges) with a plutocracy.

It is the job of regulators to decide which standards to adopt or not, and why and where and when and for which uses. They have (notionally) the mechanisms for accountability (at least in democratic nations) and for preventing petty tyranny, whether of a minority against the majority or of the majority against a minority.


2007-02-06 02:36:15
It seems like the regulators are very easily influenced by a mailing campaign. I just read that the UK national standards body BSI has raised a finding of contradiction against the OOXML standard.

SO I guess you and the rest of JTC1 have to get together to discuss the contradictions and do some kind of ruling on them before the fasttrack proces can continue ???

2007-02-06 04:48:21
The status of the document as a legal or regulatory instrument and the status or provenance of the body which creates it can be usefully separated. A document can be regulatory given the context of its citation. For example, a standard cited in a contract has a legal basis for regulating the conduct of actions performed under the contract.

Provenance (typically, the history of the ownership of a document) is a murky term in this context but I don't have a better one to describe the committee that controls the creation and history of the document handling (its history). I am equally horrified by self-selection as the sole means of determining who can contribute to a document that may be citable in a regulatory context.

Volunteerism is a good force but not always an adequate credential.

Luc Bollen
2007-02-06 05:18:28
An interesting analysis of legal rules to be followed by national regulation bodies can be found at
Rick Jelliffe
2007-02-06 18:08:17
hAl: The different standards bodies may indeed have different views. I expect ISO will be clarifying what contradiction means out of it. I am told ANSI raised no contradiction issues and neither did Australia (though it asked ISO for clarification of what a contradiction is.) It also comes down to the voting rules and culture of each national body too: to what extent they work on concensus or majority, to what extent new members have standing to vote, to what extent they feel their duty is to summarize and pass on comments for ISO resolution rather than vet them (the Directives speak of "perceived contradictions"), etc.

Len: +1

Luc: It is indeed an interesting article. I particuarly like the scary italicization of the law. As the specific Groklaw etc. technical claims are looking pretty shakey, I think they have to switch to some other reason that sounds good. It would be more inclined to take it seriously if he abandoned wild talk of "smokescreens" and so on, but then inflamation seems to be a central tactic. They need to convince people that to be pro-ODF entails being anti-OOXML, that OOXML will drag ODF down, that OOXML will allow MS to escape from ODF's Pandora's box, and so on.

Marbux says that reviewers shouldn't listen to technical arguments that would sway a computer scientist. Gosh, so technical questions of contradiction are positive off-limits now? How ridiculous: they can make any technical claims but as soon as anyone serious questions them they it becomes an off-limits issue.

Instead, reviewers should listen to economists! Actually, my degree was in economics, so I guess I am allowed to talk still, despite the disadvantage of expertise. Doh.

(Lobbyestwatch: Actually, the ODF people do have an economist working with them. People who are following the story and are wondering who the various people are will sooner or later come across the name of Charles-H. Schulz: he works for ODF on localization and also has a consulting company for FLOSS matters: readers of French can pick up a white paper from his website IBM Workplace, les enjeux de l'interopérabilité sur le poste de travail professionnel. The services his company offers include Community Relationship Management. We had a little exchange here.) )

On to some points raised about contradiction in the contradiction phase: I think Marbux is wrong to dismiss past practise, as if the existing overlapping international standards somehow slipped past the Secretariat's notice. Past practise is the surest indicator of policy, not some fact that can be dismissed because it doesn't fit the argument.

I see two troubles with the trade argument (as far as it applies to the contradiction phase):

1) The JTC1 Directives say "During the 30-day review period, an NB may identify to the JTC 1 Secretariat any perceived contradiction with other JTC 1, ISO or IEC standard" but to say that a contradiction includes alleged economic effects is drawing a long bow, and demanding skills of ISO ITTF that it does not have: it is not the place of ISO Secretariat to make decisions based on subjective or non-technical matters, especially based on economic claims. I don't think they will allow themselves to be put into that position. National Bodies can vote on whatever criteria they like, and the final ballot is the appropriate forum for that.

2) I don't see how an ISO OOXML would be any kind of a barrier to trade. Is people want interoperability, then they have to specify particular standards and particular profiles *regardless* of how many standards there are.

2007-02-07 01:07:11
I am not very convinced by the legal analysis made by Groklaw on some issues related to ooxml. I think particularly Marbux is more led by his emotions than by pratical law as such.
I tried to raise some of those issues on Grokdoc but it seems when only comments that are negative for ooxml are allowed on that objections page of them.

I was a bit disappointed that a site like groklaw claiming to support opennes seems very closed for discussion on these subjects.

2007-02-07 03:38:03
Weirder and weirder.

Now the economists are telling us to ignore the technical and understand the economic? Ok.

1. A VC wants a four for one punch. That means barriers to competition (patents or press) or a pyramid scheme (faux economy and press). Is that economic or technical?

2. A standard works best if there are multiple implementations prior to standardization. IBM says we need to accept SecondLife as a standard for 3D on The Web because it needs standards. Raph Koster announces a new company with himself as the President developing a new product to be a standard for 3D on the Web RSN. There is an existing ISO standard for 3D On The Web with 17 existing implementations and diverse applications. The aforementioned have one: social networks, but the first one has subscribers and the second one has 'an expert who has done interesting work'. Who should be the standard editor? Is this technical or economic?

This is classic "money rules" rules. The deal is to make as big a splash initially as possible, call it a standard, flip it up, take the cash and leave the shell behind. If we accept that for product standards, we are creating carnage. It is well and good to compete on product features that improve the fundamentals of some technology. Races are won at Grand Prix by figuring out a better implementation for weight to power and fuel consumption. If it works, it makes it into a generation of muscle cars AND hybrids for eco-sensitive implementations. That's standard. That might improve sales for some manufacturer. That's economic.

But legislation to pick a technology by fiat without substantial credible improvements in the performance of the technology, that's piracy by government fiat. Economists become the pirate in the crow's nest surveiling the horizon for the next victim.

Sun execs need to take a hard look at their business model and their own executive suite. Standards games didn't give them a profitable quarter for the first time in years. Improvements in hardware performance did. If they don't get that, they need to replace Schwartz and anyone he hired. IBM will do as it has been: make money on services and if an technology comes along to improve the performance of those services, they switch. Investments in standards are chump change in that model.

Microsoft will continue to push its own technology to perform better and build bridges to any technology with a customer base large enough to justify the investment. That's economics.

Rick Jelliffe
2007-02-13 23:58:21
(I also posted these links and quotes on my blog about ISO "contradiction", but it is relevant here too.)

A useful comment from an ODF supporter Stephen Walli (a former SunSoft and MS employee turned open source developer, with experience in IEEE and ISO standards processes). I think his experience and views (below) on the role of ISO and standards accords with my own.

"I would offer, however, that a contradiction should not be defined as a simple overlap with another standard. This is economically a poor yardstick to use. We all saw this coming last Spring. At the time I observed:

"While ISO certainly doesn't like to encourage competing or overlapping standards, they will not necessarily prevent them. They are a standards development organization in place to ensure that the rules of development are transparent and followed. It is not their role (nor do you ever want it to be) to manage the marketplace through determining the economic viability of a standard.

"By all means send the Ecma International specification back for some of the egregious internal conflicts, and ugly artifacts like date redefinitions. But let the market decide which standard has the best value proposition to solve customer problems with the most implementations. [We already know which will win.] Consider the IEEE 802 standards family. If they didn't allow standards that overlap in functionality, we would still be living on star LANs."

Now the original posting he mentions has the following opinion: "Then there's the issue with respect to competing standards. This too is a red herring.

"While ISO certainly doesn't like to encourage competing or overlapping standards, they will not necessarily prevent them. They are a standards development organization in place to ensure that the rules of development are transparent and followed. It is not their role (nor do you ever want it to be) to manage the marketplace through determining the economic viability of a standard.

Err, sounds like me doesn't it?

Rick Jelliffe
2007-02-14 01:25:35
hAl: I missed the second paragraph. No, I don't have any input into the process. The next SC34 WG1 meeting is in Oslo in March 2007 and I have no business with Schematron that would make me attend (a Technical Corrigendum might come up for the meeting 3 months after that though), but I don't know that WG1 is at all involved. (I am not a participant in JTC1 or Ecma.)