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Standards for Standards

No one wants to risk using a drug that is not fully tried and tested and accredited by the relevant health standards body. The fact that many people do just that is telling. Of course, the major reason for doing so is they are either unaware that the product they are consuming is a fake or they simply cannot afford to buy prescription drugs. The Internet, as well as many street corner shops and kiosks in less regulated markets, offers an unlimited supply of cheap fake drugs, and the best that can be hoped for is that they do no harm. But there is another underlying concern, and that is that many people are really unaware of the importance of standards.

In the UK, there were plenty of health and safety standards covering construction sites, and an important source of monitoring and enforcement was trade union or “shop steward” activity. When trade unions were on the retreat in the 1980s, many construction sites became unorganized and the injuries and death rates went up as a consequence. This illustrates the importance of both awareness and agency: who recognizes the dangers and who polices and enforces the rules.

In the realm of ICT, standards also impact health and safety issues but less so than in industries such as pharmaceuticals, construction, agriculture or mining. For example, exploding handsets are a rare occurrence but can be very dangerous. So too can high levels of radio emissions. But standards are much more important as ways to ensure (i) conformity to the technical safety of networks and equipment, and (ii) to open the door to economies of scale through mass production and to ease market entry. Once standards are known, downstream innovation becomes easier. Standards can lessen irritating issues for consumers such as having to use different charging devices for similar equipment made by different manufacturers. More importantly, standards in protocols allow any-to-any connectivity and the economic benefits of network effects. In other words, if standards become standard, then users of ICTs benefit exponentially.

This is never a static issue. Standards evolve and new standards come about through innovation. The switchover from analogue to digital terrestrial TV will require everyone to replace the old with the new. But here arises an old issue: it is always in the interest of some stakeholder to ring fence their proprietary standard, usually through the use of patent law. This in itself is not necessarily a problem when proprietary standards compete with open standards and the result can, but will not always be, a drive to further innovation. Apple vs. Samsung and by extension vs. Android is just the latest manifestation of this eternal commercial battle. It is arguable that patent law is inappropriate to the ICT sector and that Apple, for example, would have developed and marketed the iPhone even if it could not protect its own standards. Unlike the pharmaceutical industry, the life-cycle in the ICT world hardly warrants 30-year patent protection. And the fact that courts in the USA and in the UK and in South Korea each came to different conclusions underscores just how arbitrary standards are when applied to designs and app features. If these rules were strictly applied to the music industry, where imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there probably wouldn’t be sufficient output to fill a Top Twenty chart.

Far more ominous than the commercial pressure for the control of standards is the political pressure. Nowhere is this more evident than in the latest foray of the ITU into the domain of the Internet. In December 2012, the ITU will meet in Dubai to review Internet governance. China, Russia and other countries concerned with the global reach (or intrusiveness) of the Internet are seeking ways to rein it in and assert more national control. For years the ITU was the key standards setting arena for the telecoms world, so much so that the Internet world by-passed it completely. Telecom standards are now no longer dictated by the national equipment manufacturers of ITU Member States. On the contrary, standards are now being set through open competition in world markets and the intervention of states is exactly that. Recently a new alliance has emerged of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineer (IEEE) to espouse the virtues of open standards and in effect herald the end of the era in which the ITU was relevant as a standards body. So “Roll over Beethoven, they’re rockin’ in two by two.”

Photo by Maria Lupan on Unsplash

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