Arnaud's Blog

Opinions on open source, standards, and other things

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.


March 9, 2008 - Posted by | standards | , , ,


  1. Eurovision is still going and yes, countries can’t vote for themselves. This does not stop the problem though as regional block voting happens so various countries always give each other 12 points. I think if Microsoft could not vote for themselves they would be one of those poor unfortunate (and untalented) bands who ends the evening with nill point!

    Comment by Alan Bell | March 10, 2008 | Reply

  2. Your analogy with Eurovision is particularly accurate.

    You are indeed correct that a county cannot vote for it’s own song in the competition. However in recent years the voting has been spoiled by blocks of countries voting for each other irrespective of the quality of the song (okay – they’re all rubbish, but putting that aside). Typically Eastern European companies tend to band together, Scandanavias etc.

    This is akin to Microsoft not voting, but its many (newly joined) affiliants still being able to vote – and voting with their block – irrespective of the qualities of the proposed standard being debated on its own

    Ruling a submitter of a proposal out of the voting process is easy. Omitting groups who may vote for the wrong reasons is more complicated. Maybe the “strength” of a vote could be tied to the number of previous votes the voter has made and their level of “correctness” with how those previous votes actually finished. i.e. Voters who have a proven track record of backing the winning side get an increase in voting power.

    Comment by bargolf | March 10, 2008 | Reply

  3. Do you have the names of those 11 Microsoft Business Partners?

    Comment by orcad | March 10, 2008 | Reply

  4. Well, we could note publically that this is ‘anticompetitive behavior’; and that anticompetitive behaviour has a number of consequences …
    1) It invites disrespect from competitors.
    2) It causes competitors to leave the business.

    It may be worth pointing out that IBM currently has no developers or salespeople assigned to IBM Lotus SmartSuite, and (as far as I can tell) no plan to bring Lotus SmartSuite into conformance with either ISO26300 or ECMA376. If someone desires a ‘successor to SmartSuite’ from IBM, they should download at no charge; and treat it as a marketing novelty in support of IBM’s Lotus Notes product. If you think of Symphony as being a telephone handset, then Notes is the infrastructure … the wiring, the central offices, the switching and routing … that makes it valuable.

    Whether any of the competition authorities in the world takes any action … the US DOJ, Neelie Kroes and friends in Europe, and all of the rest of them … is I guess up to them.

    Anticompetitive behaviour is only really remedied by self-discipline.

    So we’re moving on. There is business to be done; fresh fields, and pastures new. But I don’t think SmartSuite is coming back.

    For what it’s worth, I work at IBM. But I don’t represent IBM. If anyone wants to get in touch, to get an official position, by all means do so and I will find you someone who does represent IBM.

    Comment by Chris Ward | March 10, 2008 | Reply

  5. orcad, the V1 membership is online:

    Comment by Arnaud Le Hors | March 10, 2008 | Reply

  6. This people ( most of V1 Microsoft members ) are rushing the standard, don’t reviewing it. They don’t care in final users, just want to keep doing business selling Microsoft products. It’s shameful that ISO and ANSI/INCITS are subject of such “standardization by corporations”.

    The following are some of the voting members of Incits-V1 committee reviewing OOXML ( they represent more than 70% of the total members ) , now they have voted an non inexistent text ( ECMA/Microsoft is reorganizing the text as multipart, changing conformance structure, fixing XML examples, changing scope ! , applying proposed dispositions, removing unecessary redundat normative text, changing again the date system , etc, etc ), and it supposed that fast-tracked standards are pre-reviewed and mature.

    See how vendor-neutral they are:

    1. 3Sharp -> Microsoft gold partner, mentioned in [2], front page says “3Sharp is a key contributor to Microsoft’s new Data Encryption Toolkit”

    2. Advaiya 7 ocurrences of “Microsoft” in front page

    3. BP -> ECMA TC-45 (OOXML) member

    4. Microsoft -> the OOXML “perpetrator” ( the father of the beast )

    5. Mimosa Systems -> Microsoft gold certified, ( flagship product is “Mimosa NearPoint for Microsoft Exchange Server”

    6. NextPage -> Microsoft ( ) certified partner

    7. Peters & Associates -> Microsoft gold partner, 10 ocurrences of “Microsoft” in front page

    8. Reality Mobile -> flagship product transmit real-time video and geospatial coordinates WHAT THIS HAVE TO DO WITH OFFICE DOCUMENT STANDARDS ( this “member” approved inconditionally last year without ever contributing any comment, now it seems that have gone from V1 , GOOD WORK !!! thanks for contributing to standardization )

    9. Xinnovation -> Microsoft gold certified , flagship product built around Microsoft Office software

    10. mindjet: Microsoft Gold Certified Partner -> flagship product supports Office 2007

    11. Fortified DataCom: one of flagship products runs XP with MS Office, mentioned in [1] when the company was known as Z5 technologies”

    etc, etc



    Comment by Carlos Drexler | March 10, 2008 | Reply

  7. I’m not sure the Eurovision analogy is a good one. If that were the case, it would almost be more like banning the entire USA delegation from being able to vote, since Microsoft is primarily a corporation based in the USA.

    That being said, I’m still not convinced that Microsoft ITSELF shouldn’t be allowed to vote on its own proposed standard. What I really find troubling is Microsoft’s ability to “stack” the US V1 technical committee with all its hand-picked, bought and paid for cronies, who will vote however they tell them, allowing Microsoft to basically “buy” the US vote. They’ve got billions of dollars to hand out either over or under the table to buy votes all around the world. In some national bodies, this tactic has clearly backfired and blown up in their faces, but I’m afraid that they are still able to purchase a huge portion of the vote. I think that’s what we should be following — the money trail from Microsoft, and it’s probably a better tactic to approach in terms of correcting the holes in the standards process where one corporation can ram through its own standards and call them “Open”.

    Comment by Charles Tryon | March 10, 2008 | Reply

  8. Is the Process Really Broken?

    The more I think about this, the more I wonder if the problem is in the process, or in the standard itself?

    Consider the process the ODF specification went through. I don’t have notes in front of me, but I strongly suspect that Sun had a hand in the approval process. I’m sure they voted YES on their ODF specification because it was in their own financial interest to have ODF blessed as an international standard.

    The DIFFERENCE is that Sun was not the only vendor involved — they had a huge amount of input into the specification, but so did a lot of other groups. The specification really WAS a standard already, used by several other vendors, in products other than, and it was clear that ODF really was unencumbered by patents or other IP booby-traps.

    Contrast that with OOXML, which never has been, and never really will be a “standard” in the sense of free, multi-platform, multi-vendor support. Microsoft doesn’t want a standard. They don’t want to interoperate with other applications, or give anyone else free access to their proprietary formats. They are looking for a fig leaf with an “OPEN” stamp on it, so that governments around the world (which are hopping on the “Open” bandwagon) can bless their MS Office products, and they can go on their merry way, ramming their monopoly products down everyone’s throats.

    Comment by Charles Tryon | March 10, 2008 | Reply

  9. […] very start, going back a long, long way. It is hardly surprising to finally find that Microsoft is ’stealing the elections’ yet again. In the latest demonstration of how broken the process is the US V1 technical committee voted on […]

    Pingback by Boycott Novell » OOXML: Stacking, Exclusion and Snubbing in the US, Australia and New Zealand | March 10, 2008 | Reply

  10. How many of the members were also either partners of IBM, Sun, Google, Oracle and Redhat ? (US companies that all voted against this standardisation at one time or another)

    Comment by hAl | March 10, 2008 | Reply

  11. In practice the Micrsoft gold parters that voted for approval does not need to be bought by Microsoft for the current mess to result.

    At the heart of the problem is that the Microsoft ecology system is so large that any standard proposed by Microsoft is pretty much given to get random support from a number of gold partners simply from the fact that these benefit from the Microsoft ecology system staying dominant.

    The failure of the ISO process is pretty much caused by the late stuffing of the NBs. If you can participate in voting for Microsoft proposals without reviewing the actual proposal or taking part of the evaluation the cost for voting for the proposal is negtible.

    I suggest that the rules should be changed so that you must attend say 80% of the meetings to be able to vote. If companies wishing to vote must devote significant time by attending meetings it will be in their best interest that the proposal is improved so that they get any something back from the company resources commited.

    Having them really taking part also give a fair chance of convincing them that the proposal lacks technical merit when such is the case. I still think we risk flawed Microsoft crap as standards, but required attending of the workgroup in the NB will mean that Microsoft can not submit a standard as flawed as OOXML.

    Comment by Fiery Spirited | March 11, 2008 | Reply

  12. [quote]The DIFFERENCE is that Sun was not the only vendor involved — they had a huge amount of input into the specification, but so did a lot of other groups. [/quote]

    Actually that is incorrect. Sun and IBM have a voting majority in the OASIS TC Since the beginning of the standardization proces and have excluded efforts from other parties to make additions to ODF and only allow features that can be supported by their products (OOo and Lotus Notes/Symphony)

    On the other hand in Ecma, Microsoft has only one vote in the Technical committees that has about 15 members, so in Ecma the other TC member can have much more influence on the format. For instance the often critisised compatibitily tags are an addition made on request of other Ecma TC members.

    Comment by hAl | March 11, 2008 | Reply

  13. hAl,
    you’ve set off my troll detection radar. Don’t expect me to keep approving publication of this kind of non-sense.
    You’ve been warned.

    Comment by Arnaud Le Hors | March 12, 2008 | Reply

  14. hAl, since IBM was late to the game with Symphony, how did ODF get approved at all?

    It’s been over a year since I looked into it, but I recall seeing quite a few changes to ODF that were proposed by people other than Sun/IBM employees. Furthermore, most of the changes I looked at that were voted down were voted down by representatives of most of the companies involved, not just Sun and IBM. Admittedly, I only looked at a small fraction of the changes that were proposed.

    Incidentally, as I understand it, Microsoft has a number of partners who are also on the EMCA technical committee in question, and I also recall that rubber-stamping in EMCA is so widespread that IBM voting ‘no’ on OOXML was considered shocking and surprising, according to a Microsoft press release at the time.

    In any event, I’ve never before heard of anyone claiming that a standard which went through several years of review at the national level was railroaded through approval.

    Comment by Ed | March 16, 2008 | Reply

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