This is the first in a series of articles in which contributor Stacy Baird will analyse the role of governments in standards setting initiatives which will be posted on a bi-weekly basis – Editor
This series is substantially drawn from an article I wrote for the Stanford Law and Policy Review (Volume 18, Issue 1 (2007)). As we move into a time of predictibly heightened interest in government intervention in IT standards and interoperability with the deployment of cloud technologies, I find it interesting to once again consider the arguments of this article.
The explosive growth of the role of IT in our society and as a component of our economy has dramatically elevated the importance of IT interoperability. Interoperability may be achieved in a number of ways, through intellectual property licensing and cross-licensing, relatively simple technical means (for instance, in information technologies and consumer electronics converters and translators are commonplace in both software and hardware), industry collaboration with companies working to facilitate interoperability among their products, through a company designing its product to interoperate with the products of other companies, and through consulting services that facilitate interoperability among otherwise non-interoperable technologies. And indeed, interoperability between modern technologies is often a far simpler task than during previous eras of technological evolution wherein inventors were limited by physical characteristics and mechanical interactions. Further to this point, in light of Web 2.0 technologies and cloud computing, interoperability and the use of widely accepted standards to achieve that interoperability are at the core of both innovation and implementation.
Since the early 1990’s, increased need for interoperability has in turn resulted in enormous demand for standards at a pace that challenges traditional standards-setting processes. Concurrently, government programs have transitioned from reliance on government-specific standards, such as U.S. Department of Defense MilSPEC/MilStandards in the U.S., to voluntary standards developed in the private sector, placing an additional burden on standards-setting forums. As a result of these factors, the information technologies industries are in an extremely competitive commercial environment, one that is also reliant on standards that facilitate interoperability among increasingly heterogeneous products and services. Approaches to enterprise architecture such as Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) and the latest IT trend, cloud computing, further emphasize the need for interoperability. The high demand for interoperability is in turn creating an environment wherein stakeholders are more likely to turn to government to intervene in the market to aid in achieving particular goals more rapidly than may occur in the natural course of market activity.
In some cases, the government is being asked by one business sector or another to play a role in, or even to take responsibility for, setting IT standards, the development of which were vexing the industry with conflicting interests, or identified by one proponent or another to need government assistance to accelerate the advancement of one technological solution, business model or corporate venture over another. Throughout this dynamic period, governments have been asked by stakeholders or have independently pursued mandating particular IT standards in several areas:
Copyright protection and digital rights management for copyrighted works. This has been a technical, legal and political issue for years. Examples include recent efforts to seek a government mandate, such as legislation in the U.S. which would precipitate a government mandate for digital rights management standard and efforts by both Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to establish a “broadcast flag” digital marker with specific technical standards for digital broadcast television.
Open Source Software. There is an ongoing debate as to whether governments should mandate standards that are implemented with open-source code software over proprietary software because, proponents of open source argue, open source software has characteristics that are better aligned with the needs of government and government adoption would accelerate broader market adoption of open source applications.
National security information sharing. Subsequent to the events of September 11, 2001, there has been heightened attention given to improving data interoperability to facilitate better information sharing between law enforcement, intelligence, immigration, and foreign service agencies, to better protect national security for countries around the globe.
Emergency communications interoperability. Also subsequent to the events of September 11th and several natural disasters, there has been greater interest in improving radio and data communications interoperability for fire, law enforcement, and other “first responders.”
Electronic medical records. Since the early 1990’s, research has shown that conversion from paper to interoperable electronic health care records and prescription systems, would save thousands of lives and billions of dollars annually. Over recent years governments have given significant attention to this problem.
Cloud Computing. With the advent of cloud computing, interoperability has once again come to the fore as central to the success of deployment of the latest technology. Cloud computing elevates the importance of interoperability throughout IT architecture.
The need for interoperability has never been greater, and global cooperation around interoperability is now more than ever critical to the evolution of the benefits of IT – but so to the industry has never been so focused on achieving interoperability. This series will explore the need for government mandates for interoperability standards, arguing that the occassions are rare that warrant government intervention into the marketplace for standards. To help policy makers, I’ll also set out an analytic framework for governments to consider questions of standards mandates when they arise.