The Emerging Conflict: Corporate Interests Vs. Your Interests

Sunday, 2007-July-22 at 16:07 1 comment

Have you noticed the way that Microsoft and its shills are trying to stuff the ballot box of national standards committees voting on Office Not-so-open XML (OOXML)?  That the technique is so close to success tells us that there are radical reforms needed in the international standards process.  To be sure, they did not win outright in the INCITS V1 committee, but they are certainly going to press for a backroom win.  In some countries, such as Portugal, the packing the court technique appears to be more successful.

Control Of International Standards

According to Rick Jelliffe, who has had some prior involvement in standards-setting, standards are a sort of gentlemen’s agreement, in which members of a particular industry voluntarily decide to make their products conform to a certain set of specifications and requirements.  That may have been true in the past.  In some situations, that may even be true today.  However, in many industries, industry standards become legal responsibilities or prerequisites for government purchases.  For example, when you go to buy a 16 oz. beverage, you are actually getting 500 ml (about 16.9 fl. oz).  Your 12 oz. can is actually 355 ml.  A government edict obligated products to be produced in the nearest metric size instead of our traditional measurements.  That, my friends, is a government-mandated standard.

Why is Microsoft manipulating the ISO standards-setting process?  Because they can see a time coming when an international standard might be used to actually require interoperable file formats and interchangeable software in government purchasing.  Once that happens, goodbye monopoly.

Watch also as Microsoft tangles with Adobe over PDF vs. XPS as standards.  Adobe’s PDF format has been ubiquitous, with a number of independent implementations.  You can walk right into nearly any office-products store and come out with boxed non-Adobe PDF writer/printer software.  Likewise, if you are using OpenOffice.org as your office suite, you can export PDF files directly from the application.  As of yet, I have seen only Microsoft’s Windows-only XPS printer, with zero documents actually created/exported in that format.  If OOXML is created to preserve the Microsoft monopoly in office software, XPS seems to be created to displace Adobe and extend MS Office’s hegemony into another realm.

Ecma even markets itself as a way to buy a standard.  That has got to be humiliating to have to sell yourself that way.  I imagine Ecma wearing a tight red miniskirt, standing on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, waiting for johns (e.g., Microsoft) to come by.  But it isn’t just about Ecma.  Microsoft is misusing the ISO standards process, having its proxies join and vote on the OOXML issue.

Control Of Internet Content

There is a closely-related process going on in the U.S. Congress right now.  Telephone and cable companies (communications service providers) wish to use their control of the “last mile” of wire or fiber to decide which content providers and which content their customers can obtain.  While they may claim that this is a way to pay for the cost of their networks, the truth is that those costs are already paid by their customers.  Instead, this is regarded as “free money,” similar to owning a record company a few years ago.  Think about it–consumers wish to use content from sites like YouTube, but that content has to come across wires owned by Verizon and friends.  So Verizon wants to tell YouTube to pay Verizon a fee so that Verizon won’t obstruct YouTube content heading for Verizon subscribers.

Ordinarily, Congress would have immediately called the CEOs of those companies in for a reaming, followed by a bill to increase the regulatory oversight authority of the FCC.  Of course, the current FCC is merely a subsidiary of big business.  Even if it was not, Congress is doing its best Nero impression, while service providers wait for the issue to blow over.

Net neutrality is the only option that is good for SLOBs [Small, Locally-Owned Businesses] and consumers.  If smaller competitors are unable to pay the fees to the gatekeepers, they’ll be blocked out.  Likewise, companies that provide content that is competitive to content provided by affiliates of service providers

Citizens & Consumers Need Protection

The current disputes over whether to continue expanding or extending the power and control of large privately-owned enterprises over the lives of Americans (and our government agencies and smaller businesses) shows one thing.  Given the power to do so, most entities will seek to control the world.  (Cue the theme song from Warner Bros.’ “Pinky and the Brain” cartoons.)

This is especially true when an entity has already gained enormous power and riches and feels that a consumer-oriented initiative threatens that power–the entity will counter-attack to preserve what it is accustomed to having and will seek to extend it even further.  The advance of the consumer-friendly ODF standard threatened the dominance of MS Office–if multiple vendors make software that fully-understands the same file format, why pay more for a certain vendor’s product?  Likewise, the rise of VOIP and video-on-demand services (content providers) threatens the dominance of the telephone and cable companies.   The rise of peer-to-peer and digital music distribution threatens the dominance of the big music companies. In each case, the dominant industry or enterprises with an industry have reacted to trends that are giving consumers more power by trying to lock consumers into some sort of situation that benefits only the industry or enterprise that is already dominant.  (The RIAA seems to be willing to kill off Internet radio so that their control of “content” can be maintained.)

Because standards affect end-users and purchasers of software and computer systems, these groups need to be represented in the process of setting and approving standards.  Because restrictions on what content and what content providers consumers can access affects the consumer, representatives from this group need to be involved in the process of setting the rules which govern the wires over which service is provided.  Because restrictions on digital “content” affect the ways in which the purchasers can use the content they buy, consumers (that is, purchasers) need to be represented in the process of setting the rules under which content may be distributed.

We don’t need to have out-of-state corporations deciding whether our government agencies will use open standard file formats–this is a decision for the citizens and residents of a state, and not corporate “interoperability” representatives.

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Entry filed under: ODF, Open Standards, Politics, Society. Tags: .

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