Every so often I watch some financial program on TV and one thing I’ve always appreciated is the full disclosure policy they have in the financial world.
That is, when someone from the financial industry is being interviewed by journalists on what they think about a particular financial interest, be it a particular company or a specific sector, a chart is typically displayed disclosing any relationship the interviewee has with the financial interest he or she is speaking about.
The disclosure typically includes information such as whether the person owns stock in the company being discussed, whether his or her company owns that stock or manages a fund that owns that stock, etc.
This is something especially important to know given that if the person owns that stock and tells you to buy it, he or she will directly benefit from your purchase. It doesn’t mean that the expressed opinion is necessarily false or misleading, but it’s important for you to know there is a possible conflict of interest so that you have all the elements in hand to make your own decision.
Once the dust settles on the rubbles left behind by the OOXML debacle, as we move forward in the IT industry and reflect on what we ought to do to improve our standards setting process to prevent this type of abuse from reoccurring, I think we should look into globally adopting a disclosure policy similar to what the financial world has.
Looking at the people who’ve participated in the worldwide debate around OOXML I see two categories of people. There are those who are employed by a company, like myself, and who speak with that hat on clearly disclosing to the world a possible bias. Then there are those who talk without showing any particular affiliation with any interested parties involved. These people are either truly independent or simply hiding the ties they have. The problem is that we don’t know.
I should note that some standards development organizations already have such disclosure policy. When one joins a working group, he or she must disclose any relevant affiliation. But this needs to be generalized.
It is currently too easy for people to speak as if they were independent and use this pseudo-independence to influence uninformed people. Groklaw recently posted a story called “How to Get Your Platform Accepted as a Standard – Microsoft Style” with evidence that Microsoft, for one, has made this kind of tactic an integral part of its business development strategy. It is hard to read this and not wonder about Rick Jeliffe’s continuous lobbying and Patrick Durusau’s recent change of heart. Especially when everything they say becomes Microsoft’s new ammunition in a matter of minutes.
I think in the long run blatantly biased people discredit themselves and can only do so for so long. It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and minutes to destroy it. Those who have been working on destroying theirs for months over OOXML have in my opinion little prospect other than specializing in the job of “pseudo-independent for hire”, with the inherent risk of seeing their value proposition diminish over time, as their game becomes more and more obvious to the world. But more subtle people may still go on for quite a while before being detected, if ever.
Of course a disclosure policy similar to what is used in the financial world isn’t bullet proof either. There will always be some room for game play by unscrupulous people and companies. But at least it would set some expectations and, just like in the financial world, the consequences when being caught to have failed to disclose any relevant affiliation could be far greater than they currently are. I’m not excluding judicial prosecution here. After all, the stakes are not that different than in the financial world and without being a lawyer I think anti-trust laws and others may apply.
Something to think about when considering ways to increase transparency in the standards development process.