The following text is copyright 1998 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

We are here to help

By Scott Bradner

Jim Isaak has an article in the December, 1998 issue of Computer, the magazine of the IEEE computer society about "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 an active member of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), I feel that much of what Jim says in the article makes a great deal of sense. For example, his strongest statement is that "governments cannot effectively represent their constants by taking unilateral action in establishing standards." It would be hard to argue the reverse. Except in areas unrelated to information technology, such as water quality and highway sign design, governments have not proven themselves to be knowledgeable enough or able to respond quickly enough to play controlling roles in standards development. Their involvement tends to inhibit rather than foster innovation. As Judge Dalzell asked me during my testimony during the court hearings for the American Library Association 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 says, 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 I think that Jim is missing some of the lessons of history when he suggests that governments should do conformance testing. This was tried with limited success during the time when many governments around the world were backing the OSI protocol suite in opposition to TCP/IP. The marketplace and, in some cases such as the recent Sun vs. Microsoft court fight over Java, contractual law, seems to be able to perform interoperability and conformance testing quite well. Note that it is more important that the set of features of a standard that consumers want to use are properly implemented than that all the features are. Conformance testing tends to forget this fact and to want to ensure all features work.

But the area where I think Jim 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, acting as government representatives, at its "management level" is very troublesome indeed. Ignoring obvious questions such as which governments should participate and how should the representatives be selected, 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 effective, market driven, standards making.

Luckily, as a private international organization, the IETF can not be forced to accept such "help."

disclaimer: Harvard frequently offers to help but does not foist it, but the above is my rejection of assistance.