Open standards in government: one week to make it happen

Update 2012-04-26: The deadline has now been extended to Monday, 4th June 2012.

The Government are currently deciding whether they should commit to ‘open standards’. If they do, when they publish information or data to the public or share documents within governments, they would have to use formats that are not ‘owned’ by one particular vendor.

This will improve access and reuse of government information, reduce government dependency on particular companies, reduce the costs of procuring ICT in government, and help boost the market for software by driving a wider adoption of open standard formats.

Open standards are a vital ingredient of plans to open up the UK government. So far the government have made great strides towards committing to open standards, for which they should be applauded and supported.

But the proposals are under serious threat from some heavy lobbying by those businesses who deploy ‘proprietary’, or closed, standards. Some extraordinary pressure is being applied by vested interests who want to maintain the status quo and water down the proposals for a commitment to true open standards. Glyn Moody, for example, has been writing a series of articles about ‘how Microsoft lobbied against true open standards‘.

The only counterweight to this lobbying will be your voice. It’s like this: if enough people that care about open standards tell the government why, now, then they might actually commit to truly open standards. But if people don’t take this opportunity, then the government are more likely to water down their plans, and the opportunity will be missed.

So it is really important that if you value open standards, and you wish to see the Government maintain its momentum towards openness, you respond to the consultation. If they don’t hear from us, then they won’t have the democratic ammunition to commit to open standards.

  • Luckily enough, it is really easily to respond at the Cabinet Office website or by sending your response to this email address:
  • Details, including the full proposals and the questions the Government is asking, are on the Cabinet Office website. The consultation document is available as a pdf too.
  • The deadline is Tuesday May 1st Monday June 4th. So have your say now!

What should I say? What’s at stake?

If the Government wants to promote truly open government, boosting transparency, innovation around public services, and the IT market, then it is critical they commit to truly open standards. Without this commitment, the government will be clipping the wings of their openness agenda.

If you’ve not submitted to a government consultation before, don’t worry, it’s very simple. Just write down your opinion as clearly and simply as you can. Writing short answers is helpful – they will get a lot of responses so it’s easier for them if they don’t have to go through thousands and thousands of pages! And you don’t have to answer all of the questions.

You should answer in your own words, of course. If you have evidence of the effects of open standards, or the lack of them, that is likely to be especially helpful.

Here are some points covering what we think are some of the key issues, in case it helps.

Open standards are a vital part of open government

The Government plans to publish more ‘public data’ than before under plans to promote transparency and improve engagement in and innovation around public services. This is part of a concerted drive towards more ‘open government’.  

An important part of that is ensuring that the information released is in a format that is usable as widely as possible.

Open Standards are a publicly documented common language that computer programs can speak. They are critical to interoperability and freedom of choice in technology. So committing to open standards means that information the Government releases to the public is not locked in to a particular platform, can be used or read more widely, and will likely be easier to archive and read in the future.

Committing to truly open standards

The definition of an open standard in the consultation is good as it stands. But there are questions in the consultation about adopting licensing terms using what is called ‘FRAND‘. This should be treated with some caution – there are important concerns about the adoption of ‘FRAND’ as a model for the Government’s commitment to open standards, and for dealing with those who have patents or copyright in some components of the software in question.

The acronym stands for Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory. It can refer to the terms attached to the use of elements within a standard that are covered by other people’s patents, for example.

The terms ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’ and ‘non-discriminatory’ sound pleasant enough. But there is no strict legal definition of FRAND, and the owner of a patent can set the terms. And these will be set by companies who may attach conditions that still have the effect of disadvantaging rivals. It could chill development and restrict the market if it creates uncertainty, and can rule out some free software providers where there is a royalty requirement.

Open standards that are not bound by these requirements, and which don’t make development and use dependent on third parties in this way – specifically, for example, ‘royalty-free’ standards – are far preferable.

‘FRAND’ gives patent owners too much power to determine the evolution and use of the standard. It can be a way for existing market dominant players to retain leverage in the provision of services. We agree with Simon Phipps, who says in an article on ComputerWorld (he calls FRAND, ‘RAND’):

RAND policy allows patent holders to decide whether they want to discourage the use of open source. Leaving that capability in the hands of some (usually well-resourced) suppliers seems unwise…

These questions are really at the heart of the consultation. What kind of open standards should the government commit to, and consider acceptable? 

Supporting the market, not the businesses in it

Open standards will unlock the technology market, shifting procurement from a reliance on de facto standards to true choice and competitiveness. It will mean that the government can choose from a broader range of providers and won’t suffer from ‘lock in’ with legacy providers. 

If you support open standards and want to see the government commit to them, please add your voice to this vital consultation. It will make a difference. 

How do I learn more?

There are plenty of informative articles to read to help you learn more. 

If you come across other useful information, evidence or analysis, do add them in the comments below!