Today I got drawn into a discussion on Sutter’s Mill about standards. The topic at hand was the ISO C++ standard and whether it qualifies as open, but it gave me a chance to read and think a bit more about other issues as well. Let’s start with a little background on how ISO works. Here are some of the more significant details.

ISO standards are developed by technical committees, (subcommittees or project committees) comprising experts from the industrial, technical and business sectors which have asked for the standards, and which subsequently put them to use. These experts may be joined by representatives of government agencies, testing laboratories, consumer associations, non-governmental organizations and academic circles.

Proposals to establish new technical committees are submitted to all ISO national member bodies

Experts participate as national delegations, chosen by the ISO national member body for the country concerned

In other words, there is no true individual involvement in the ISO standards process. A standard is initiated by a national standards body – such as ANSI in the US – which also decides who can be a delegate. Oh yeah, and they pay for it too. According to ISO in figures, member bodies pay 140 million Swiss francs per year to run the committees that do the hands-on work of developing standards, vs. 35M CHF for the Central Secretariat itself. 55% of that 35M – not of the entire 175M – also comes from the member organizations. The other 45%, or a mere 9% of the total, comes from publications and other services. This is why I said, in Herb’s thread, that the claim of ISO needing to charge $30 for a copy of the C++ standard is utter crap. They don’t need that fee to support their operations any more than IETF – which publishes their standards completely for free – does. They charge that fee for completely other reasons. This brings us back to the process.

ISO refers to theirs as an open process, and ANSI follows suit, but in fact it’s a very political process. You can’t walk in as an individual, even the most knowledgeable invididual in the world regarding a particular subject, and participate. You have to know or work for someone, who knows someone, and so on. Corporations feed people and proposals to industry or trade associations, which feed them into the national standards bodies, which feed them into ISO. There’s also politics at a higher level, as proposed ISO standards are often national standards somewhere already. Sometimes there are multiple competing national standards involved. Sometimes there are multiple technical bodies within ISO, or other bodies outside ISO (such ITU) wrangling over who controls a standard. In short, it’s a mess. In many cases, users’ needs would be just as well satisfied by allowing standards to remain within their originating national body (as with ANSI C) or industry/trade association (as with Java). Often the only people driving demand for an ISO standard are the very people who get paid to develop the ISO standard, or who hope to profit from it. What a racket.

This brings us back to the question of whether ISO standards are open. Participation is political, because of the strategic value standards have to the various parties at all levels, and thus in effect limited even though it’s nominally open. The output is only available for a fee that is totally unjustified by the cost structure that’s involved, and then subject to copyright. “Open” is the wrong word for that. On the other hand, the fact that the standards are published at all is an improvement over proprietary “de facto standards” and the freedom from licensing fees is an improvement over that. “Available” and “unencumbered” cover those properties, but “open” to me still means something more like the IETF model. A standard is only open if participation does not require sponsorship, and if its text is available for only nominal cost.