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Pieter Hintjens [opinions]

Open letter to standards professionals, developers, and activists

fsmsh.com/2867 [standards-digistan-activism]

You've read how Microsoft drove its tank through the international standardization process last year and this year, finally winning ISO approval for its legacy OOXML format. The OOXML event proved that we're in a real fight, and that money and power can break down the existing polite rules and agreements that constitute the international standardization process.

When OOXML was first launched through its “no questions asked” fast track process, people did not believe that ISO would collude with such an obvious play. Each time another scandal emerged, people thought, “this is too much, surely someone will stop this process”. And yet it went on, and the legacy format got ISO's blessing, and moved in as a sword dangling over ODF's head.

What we witnessed was the first major world-wide fight over open standards. Not just office documents, not just Massachusetts, but a fight over what it means to be a standard, what it means to be an “open standard”.

Does this fight matter to free software developers, and if so, how do we win it? Let me quote from an open letter we published today on www.digistan.org:

Industry has always depended on standards and traditional industries have built their standards as part of a slow, controlled, top-down approach to innovation. Industrial-age standards are often heavily patented, complex, and large. They can be expensive to implement and therefore are implementable only for large established firms.

But almost forty years ago, Steve Crocker and his team wrote RFC001 and launched the networks that built the Internet using a different model based on older human values of sharing and cooperation. His vision, and that of other Internet pioneers, was of a digital world built on simple, interoperable standards, accessible at zero cost to even the smallest teams. Largely, their dream is coming true. Today we're used to an Internet of open software, open content, and open development.

While most agree, not everyone likes it. In the telecoms, entertainment, and software industries we see the destruction of legacy vendors and their replacement by new Internet communities. And many of the old industrial businesses, instead of adapting, are fighting back. The fight is intensifying because the stakes are growing. Free and open source software, open content, and open communities are together worth trillions of dollars. The key to controlling these rich ecosystems is to control the digital standards they depend on.

In other words, the freedoms we're used to, indeed the freedoms many of us grew up with and today take for granted, are being taken away, strangled slowly. And the simple, unpleasant reason: they are bad for some very large legacy businesses.

Look again at one of the key aspects of OOXML's patent licensing: it excludes GPL developers. Those of us who choose to write free software are being targeted by legacy monopolists, because our software is too good. Perhaps you think this is unbelievable. Yet it's true. Free software is the only technology that can beat the money and power legacy firms still wield. And standards tightly controlled by patents are the key to excluding free software from the market.

What would a world look like when every standard was like OOXML, run for profit by legacy firms determined to squeeze every cent out of the market? We don't need to look very far. Again, quoting from the open letter:

Imagine the world if RFC001 was owned by a consortium of telecoms firms. Imagine if only those firms, and their approved partners, could develop Internet technologies. Imagine if every RFC was protected by dozens of patents, so that sending a single email or downloading a web page meant paying license fees. Imagine paying for each click. Look at your mobile phone bill and you see how close this reality is.

Now, how do we stop such a nightmare from happening? Simple outrage is not enough - we tried that with OOXML and it did nothing. What did work was being well-organized and able to speak to governments in clear terms.

So, in September last year, a group of us started to build a new global organization that we call the Digital Standards Organization, or Digistan. Digistan is a new not-for-profit worldwide grass roots organization "to defend and promote open standards". Look up the origins of the “sta” root word and you'll see why the name fits.

Digistan is now growing, with regional chapters including KROS in Poland, Digistan France, and Estándares Abiertos in Spain and Latin America.

The most important document we've produced is the the Hague Declaration on open standards, already translated into several languages. The Hague Declaration argues that international law and national constitutions of most democracies oblige governments to adopt open standards. This logic worked to convince the Spanish government to adopt open standards. And so one of our main projects in Digistan is the “Domino” workgroup, designed to take the best results from open standards e-government projects around the world, and reproduce them globally.

Please read the open letter and sign the Declaration. More to the point, understand that free and open standards are under threat, and that convincing governments to only buy and use free and open standards-based software, is the best way to respond. When governments adopt open standards they implicitly adopt free software.

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