Bradner's column: We are here to help you

Jim Isaak wrote an article for the December issue of Computer, the IEEE computer society magazine, titled "The role of government in IT standards". I'm somewhat puzzled by much of the article and quite worried about some of its recommendations.

As a member of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), I think much of the article makes a great deal of sense. Isaak's strongest statement is that "governments cannot effectively represent their constituents by taking unilateral action in establishing standards". It would be hard to argue the reverse.

Governments have not proven themselves to be knowledgeable enough or able to respond quickly enough to play controlling roles in standards development. In general, government involvement tends to inhibit rather than foster innovation.

As Judge Stewart Dalzell put it to me during court hearings for the American Library Association's challenge to the Communications Decency Act: "And indeed, isn't the whole point that the very exponential growth and utility of the Internet occurred precisely because governments kept their hands out of this and didn't set standards that everybody had to follow?"

Jim Isaak writes, and I agree, that the government should act as an "informed consumer" and vote with its purchasing dollars to "manage procurement and internal policies needed to reinforce critical standards".

But Jim is missing some of the lessons of history when he suggests that governments should do conformance testing. This was tried with limited success when many governments around the world were backing the Open Systems Interconnection protocol suite in opposition to TCP/IP. The marketplace and, in some cases, contractual law (a recent example is the Sun Microsystems vs Microsoft court battle over Java) seem to address interoperability and conformance testing quite well. Note that proper implementation is more important for the set of a standard's features that consumers want to use than for all the standard's features. Conformance testing tends to forget this and wants to ensure all features work.

But I think Isaac is seriously mistaken is in his suggestion that "Governments should serve as neutral catalysts to encourage prioritisation within the standards process, which means participating in key forums at both a management level to establish priorities and at a technical level to keep things on track".

Disregarding the assertion that a "neutral catalyst" can "encourage prioritisation," the idea that organisations, such as the IETF, should have government representatives at their "management level" is very troublesome indeed. The idea that governments would be formally put in positions of power in standards organisations just because they are governments seems guaranteed to minimise the chance of an effective, market-driven, standards-making process.

Luckily, the IETF cannot be forced to accept such "help".

Disclaimer: Harvard frequently offers help but does not foist it upon others. The above is my rejection of assistance.

Scott Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@harvard.edu.

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