Originally Published 2012-06-24 00:00:00 Published on Jun 24, 2012
No one knows what an Open Standard is. If we don't define it explicitly in time, India's ambitious digital governance plans will surely derail.
Narrow the Open Standards debate
Open is such an open word that it can conform to any description while at the same time defying them. Such is its schizophrenic quality. Affixing it in such a state to conceptually rich computing words like Standards, Sources and Platforms invariably leads to a merry-go-round of proportions that are usually associated with a wild goose. Why open needs to be open enough, but not wide open, can be explained only by a real-life story. Flush with the first taste of power in Uttar Pradesh in the early 1990s, trenchant critic of the English language Mulayam Singh Yadav wrote a letter in classical Hindi to his Kerala counterpart E K Nayanar. It took some time for Nayanar, a lifelong Communist, to understand the letter, since getting translators who could understand such quality of Hindi was difficult. Nayanar then wrote a letter back to Yadav in classical Malayalam. The UP strongman, a wrestler in his younger days, never replied and learnt his lesson. Today, he is a fan of English.

The current Indian debate on Open Standards, Sources and Platforms is bit of a throwback to the Mulayam-Nayanar attempt at conversation. Even the iconic Apple whose devices, source codes and software are as proprietary as can be hasn’t shied away from using the ’Open’ word. Such an interpretative definition muddies the dynamics of the commercial market. Devices, software and operating systems, while claiming to be Open, fail to communicate with each other. This leads to a bizarre cartelisation of the market place, where the consumer despite having plenty of options to choose from, is wedded to an eco-system the moment he makes a choice. The muddied dynamics of the commercial market, while alarming, pales in comparison to the potentially catastrophic effect that a vague definition of Open Standards, Sources and Platforms can have on India’s ambitious rollout plans on e- and m-governance.

The key principle for Standards, Sources and Platforms to be defined as ’Open’ is interoperability. In the era of Mulayam and Nayanar, it would have meant that each one should choose a language that the other understands to communicate with each other. In the digital era, it means that every single device or a piece of code or a platform should ideally be able to communicate with any other device, code or a platform. Two other principles are required for interoperability. They are public availability and public rights. Understanding it from the perspective of an earlier era, it would have meant a universal access to the chosen language and the ability of people who are using it to change it in an open manner. In today’s era, it means that Standards, Sources and Platforms should be available to one and all, not only to use but to collaborate on and keep contributing to it.

In the formal policy making and academic circles, there are varied definitions of Open Standards. While the European Union and a few of its member countries like Denmark, France and Spain define Open Standards as those that will not charge any licensing and/or royalty fees, the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) differs slightly by allowing the charging of certain ’reasonable’ licensing fees for the evolution of standards, but expects its implementation to be ’royalty-free’. So if Mulayam and Nayanar had evolved a language of their own to communicate with each other and wanted others to use it as an open standard, as per the EU definition they would have had to forego royalty and licensing fees. But if they were using the W3C guidelines, they would have been able to charge a moderate licensing fee.

Most of the definitions of Open Standards published by internationally recognised standard bodies such as Internet Engineering Task Force (IEFT), International Telecom Union (ITU), International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and International Standards Organisation (ISO) allow patent holders to impose ’reasonable and non-discriminatory’ licensing and royalty fees. Over the years, Open Standard has been interchangeably used mostly with Open Source, but also intermittently with Open Architecture and Open Platform.

There’s a reason why all three have come to be coupled with Open Standard. The underlying principles of Open Standard of interoperability, public availability and public rights necessarily require the source (codes), architecture (structure of a software system) and the platform (hardware architecture and applications) to be designed through an open process. Apart from the three basic principles, there are nine characteristics that are used to define Open Standard:

  1.Collaboration: The process of evolving the standard must be open to all interested parties

  2.Balance: There must be an internal mechanism to ensure that all stakeholders and parties are equitably represented.

  3.Process: There must be a transparent and accountable process by which each step in the evolution of a standard, source, platform and architecture is evaluated, assessed and audited.

  4.Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs): IPRs are necessary to implement the standard on a worldwide, non-discriminatory basis either for free or for ’reasonable’ licensing and royalty fees, not necessarily monetary in nature

  5.Documentation: There has to be detailed documentation available in the public domain for the development and integration of interoperable products and services.

  6.Public: The source codes, architecture and platform design should be easily available to all for implementation and use at a reasonable price, including for creating extensions

  7.Support: There should a sustainable mechanism for on-going updates of source codes and for support.

  8.Open Ecosystem: The consumer should not be locked in with a particular vendor, device or a group.

  9.Transparent Certification: There should be certification organisations that must provide a path for low and zero-cost implementations to be validated.

Despite its prowess in the field of software, India is a laggard on defining Open Standards, Sources, Platforms and Architectures. As mentioned earlier, this lack of focus on what should constitute ’Open’ has led a market place where devices, platforms, sources and architectures are plenty, but none which are truly open. This lack of a truly ’Open’ eco-system forces consumers and institutions to ’choose’ one standard, practically tethering them to that standard for life.

But the real danger is for India’s ambitious digital governance plans, which necessarily would require state and local departments, urban local bodies, state governments and the Central government to communicate with each other frequently. In short, each e- and m-governance piece, irrespective of their location in the Indian federal structure, needs to be coupled tightly with other such pieces for establishing a system for seamless communication and transactions.

The danger of a decoupled system was vividly brought about by South African technocrat and politician Mosibudi Mangena during his opening address to the 2005 South African Telecommunication and Networks and Applications Conference. Speaking about the relief efforts following the 2005 tsunami, he said, "…the tsunami that devastated Southeast Asian countries and northeastern parts of Africa, is perhaps the most graphic, albeit unfortunate, demonstration of the need for global collaboration and open ICT standards. The incalculable loss of life and damage to property was exacerbated by the fact that responding agencies and non-governmental groups were unable to share information vital to the rescue effort. Each was using different data and document formats. Relief was slowed, and coordination complicated…"

While India may not be facing a crisis of a tsunami’s proportions as yet, but the impact of rolling out an ambitious e- and m-governance system and framework without clearly specifying an open standard for interoperability, public access and public rights can be an extremely regressive step from which it may well be difficult to recover. In fact the success of a crucial reform like the nation-wide rollout of Goods and Services Tax (GST) depends on each state’s digital system communicating with the other in a coupled manner.

It’s here that the bureaucracy of the land needs to pay heed to the founder of the worldwide web, Tim Berner-Lee. "The decision to make the Web an open system was necessary for it to be universal. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it," he had said of the Internet.

Berners-Lee is essentially saying that universal, open and control are not interoperable. The sooner the bureaucracy realises it the better it will be for India. No one, after all, wants a throwback to the Mulayam-Nayanar fiasco.

(R. Swaminathan is a Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. He is also a Fellow at the National Internet Exchange of India)

Courtesy: Governance Now

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