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We are here to help you

By Scott Bradner

Network World, 12/07/98

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

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 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 of
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
prioritization 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
prioritization," the idea that organizations, 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 organizations just because they
are governments seems guaranteed to minimize 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.