The Information Society Project symposium at Yale Law School yesterday in New Haven was stimulating and gives cause for optimism that law and software standards processes will eventually catch up with the Internet.
The panel discussions focused attention on the need to acknowledge the policital, legal and economic as well as technical relevance of software code and of software standards processes; that software standards are policies in disguise, that code is law, and that our institutions exist today in the wrong shape to cope with creating and managing technology that serves both public and private interests.
The day represented a start bringing good minds and experience from the standards field together in what will be a multi-decade dialogue ahead (extending on the 10 years we've already logged) to define open standards in a way that will achieve good results.
Grounds for pessimism exist. This was a polite discussion where the word 'Microsoft' was mentioned only once all day (my memory servers me well here), even though Microsoft people contributed well and co-sponsored the event. Yet we sat in the room while Microsoft continues abuses of standards processes (the current ODF v Microsoft Office Open XML conflict at ISO) and continues illegal, unacceptable and dishonest behavior with its application interfaces (Vista, Office, Sharepoint, Windows Server, SQL Server, Dynamics, etc.) -- crimes of which it has already been convicted -- in order to protect its markets. This Elephant in the Living Room and those two single-malts the prior evening conspired to provide me a thumping headache all day; oddly, it went away right when Jason Matusow -- the gentleman -- reached out and shook my hand upon the close. (Yet I'm still very pissed off at him for the timed announcement on Friday supporting the Microsoft-Clever Age-Novell MOOXML-to-ODF translator -- full of baloney and gamesmanship about interop while delivering so poorly...we looked at it right away: the C# routines are hogs and the XSL Transformations weak. And the tactics with JTC 1 makes one shudder and lose hope that there is ever a chance of getting out from under the situation.)
On the plus side, markets themselves are less kind these days to Microsoft and its self-preservational eccentricities (evidence: Mac's success, Zune's failure, Vista's cool reception), and Harvard, Yale, MIT, UC Berkely & NYU law & media integration programs (the ones I'm aware of) are producing constructive conversations in the right directions and generating graduate students who are trickling into the field to make impact. This is an interesting and vibrant conversation and it's spilling out from these elite institutions, already having an influence.
One takes what one wants or needs to hear in these settings. For myself, here's three things I heard that I like a lot.
I. 'Miltiple standards to do the same thing are a mess.'
(Peter Strickx - FEDICT, Belgium)
Peter was funny and quite to the point. It was very useful to see how Belgium's three-culture, three-language system has produced a "weak-federal" governmental structure in which the federal entity sees its role as providing services to citizens and, equally, to the strong regional and local governments. This is the context in which XML offers an unusually clear opportunity for smooth-working government processes flexible enough to address the cross-cultural requirements. That's why ODF -- for one standard -- shouts out to the Belgians, louder than to most other areas.
II. "Standards inherently limit innovation! That's the purpose of standards!"
(Rishab Gosh - University of Maastricht, First Monday)
A clear outline of economics & standards which will have made the Microsoft representatives uncomfortable (though they remained outwardly stoic). My loud applause was an infantile gesture to ensure they felt even less comfortable.
III. 'Standards are policies: code is law'
(Vittorio Bertola, John Palfrey & Robin Gross)
The reference is to Lessig's Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. Larry Lessig is always in the room when standards and law come up. And rightly so. These are prominent and durable ideas that are going to influence the re-structuring of our governments' and businesses' attitudes to software standards.
I learned speaking with John Palfrey (Berkman Center's director), and from his mercifully focused remarks on the Law panel, that his direction this year will be to define what it means to be an open standard and then map that in the general case to a set of desirable outcomes. This should provide a much needed reference for specific standards cases and for standards bodies to contrast their efforts and shape appropriate policies.
On the day, the panels were very good (boring only in a few individual cases). The leaders at Yale's Information Society Project -- Jack Balkin, Eddan Katz & Visiting Fellow, Laura DeNardis -- deserve to be pleased with the result. And the student fellows in ISP and from elsewhere who attended have a lot to chew on.
I regret missing dinner (back to the nest I went by Amtrak), since some of these people are starting to feel like a family to me.
I would really love to see a list of possible position paper topics -- Daniel Benoliel mentioned this during his excellent panel moderation -- suggested by this symposium. This could give the Student Fellows and people elsewhere ways to embrace, extend & enhance the conversation.
Sutor -- who presented well and succinctly -- later showed me his Second Life stuff and it really is compelling -- not to be sniffled at.