Conflict of interest
I wish I knew how to fix it but I don’t. What I do know however is that the ISO/IEC process is severally broken in that it is riddled with room for game play. I guess ISO/IEC managed to get away with it for a long time but things have changed now that Microsoft has shown how to use every loophole in the process to get to its end.
Hopefully, justice will prevail and OOXML will rightly get voted down at the end of the month but the process shouldn’t have allowed to go that far into this sad farce in the first place.
In the latest demonstration of how broken the process is the US V1 technical committee voted on Friday to recommend approval of OOXML in a 17-4 vote, where Microsoft and no fewer than 11 of its business partners voted in favor of the specification. Am I the only one to see a major conflict of interest at play in this?
Evidently the result of the vote simply reflects the make up of the committee and can in no way be trusted to represent any kind of objective evaluation of the proposed standard.
So, I have to ask: how can we ask someone to vote on its own specification? Has any submitter ever voted against its own submission? I actually don’t know if that ever happened but the conflict of interest is so obvious that I wonder why this was ever allowed in the first place.
My guess is that this same process usually works just fine because normally specifications brought up for ratification by ISO/IEC are the product of a standardization process which involves more than one interested party. In such a case, the standard doesn’t solely benefit one particular vendor but represents a compromise between stakeholders.
In the case of OOXML, the reason the process falls apart is I believe primarily because OOXML is the product of a single vendor and because this vendor is supported by a large ecosystem that can participate in what is nothing else than a hijack of the standards process.
To be fair, it is not clear that other standards organizations are immune to that type of scam but thankfully there aren’t that many Ecmas around ready to make it that much easier.
As I said at the beginning I’m not sure how to fix this problem. Given the possible intricacies of partnerships between companies of our modern world it is going to be hard to figure out a clear way to discriminate among the companies involved and decide whether they have a conflict of interest or not. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try though. For one thing, it is not hard to make the call when it comes to Microsoft and OOXML. So, we could definitely do better than what we currently do.
At a minimum when there is an obvious conflict of interest, such as when asking Microsoft whether OOXML should become an ISO standard or not, the rules should make it impossible for the company to take part in the evaluation process.
When I was a kid I remember there was a TV show called “Eurovision” in which musical bands from various European countries competed with each other. The bands were given scores by judges from each country and the band with the highest tally won, a bit like what is done for ice skating. Although my memory isn’t very clear on the rules and all I do seem to recall that judges did not take part in the scoring of their own country band. This was clearly meant to lessen any risk of bias due to conflict of interest.
Maybe some similar rule should be used for standards ratification. Of course, the fact that a company can hide behind a pseudo standards organization such as Ecma makes this a bit trickier to figure out but, again, I still think we should try.
Note that the recommendation from the V1 committee does not necessarily translate in the final US vote. This recommendation now goes to the INCITS EB, for a 6-day ballot and resolution meeting, which will decide on the final position.
I can’t wait to be done with OOXML so that we can focus our energy on fixing the international standards process. If anything, what we’ve learned throughout this whole ordeal is that it is in need of a serious scrubbing.