INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS: AT THE CROSSROADS
George T. Willingmyre, P.E.
December 1, 1997
Critical issues of retaining relevance in the rapidly changing
global marketplace confront the formal International Standards
system. George Allen, one of the most successful coaches for
the Washington Redskins professional football team often responded,
"The Future is Now," when queried about short
and long term approaches to building a winning team. The International
Standardization community must adopt this sense of urgency lest
the current International system follow the fate of the Roman
Empire and the dinosaurs. Architects of the international response
to the current challenges must address weaknesses in the traditional
system that lead to competitive threats. In so doing however,
hallmark strengths of International Standards today must not be
sacrificed. To compromise certain fundamentals would be to sell
the soul, for the sake of expediency, of a system that has well
served global trade and worldwide safety, health and the environment.
What is an International Standard?
The Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade
(TBT) defines Standard as "Document approved by
a recognized body, that provides, for common and repeated use,
rules, guidelines or characteristics for products or related processes
and production methods, with which compliance is not mandatory."
The TBT defines International Body or system as,
"Body whose membership is open to the relevant bodies
of at least all Members (of the World Trade Organization (WTO))."
By construction, an International Standard is a Standard
approved by an International Body. International
Standards for purposes here, will therefore be those of the
International Organization for Standardization (ISO), International
Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), International Telecommunications
Union (ITU), Codex Alimentarius (Codex) and a handful of other
organizations. Such organizations share the common characteristic
that their membership is open to "the relevant bodies"
of WTO member countries. These bodies may be national
standards organizations or central governments. The key is the
concept of one member per country.
enjoy a favored status in the global marketplace. The TBT institutionalizes
International Standards as effective tools in reducing
non-Tariff barriers to trade. The TBT states, "Where
technical regulations are required and relevant international
standards exist or their completion is eminent, Members shall
use them, or the relevant parts of them, as a basis for their
technical regulations, except when such international standards
or relevant parts would be an ineffective or inappropriate means
for the fulfillment of the legitimate objectives pursued
Similarly, the Agreement on Government Procurement states,
"Technical specifications prescribed by procuring entities
shall, where appropriate:
be based on international standards,
where such exist
" These are not abstract, academic
concepts. The United States government has registered and won
a formal TBT dispute with the European Union (EU) on the grounds
that the EU ban of imports of US beef departs from the applicable
International Standards of the Codex.
But at the same time, important industrial segments
around the world are increasingly frustrated with the international
standards infrastructure. According to the Electrical, Electronic,
Telecommunications, Information Technologies industrial Sector
(EETIS) recommendations presented to US and European CEOs at
the Rome Trans Atlantic Business Dialog Conference in Rome November
The International Organization for Standardization
(ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), and
the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) require fundamental
operational reforms to strengthen their service to rapidly evolving
high technology sectors such as electronics, telecommunications
and information technology. The US and EU companies working through
their national standards bodies should aggressively engage in
work to accelerate within these organizations efforts to reform
the process by which standards are developed, to re-engineer operations,
to reduce excessive costs, and to increase efficiency. To date,
in the eyes of industry there has not been enough progress in
reengineering work to meet this broad goal. Nor is there evidence
that ISO, IEC and ITU cooperate to implement each other's best
What is the role and threat of international
(lower case), global, consortia and proprietary standards?
Discussions this June during another meeting of European
industry and US executives responsible for corporate global standards
strategy confirmed the pressing need for agreement on common standards
around the world. The Industry Committee on Standards and Conformity
Assessment (ICSCA) resolution 10 states, "ICSCA II supports
as a fundamental principle that global trade and commerce are
best supported by harmonized global standards, and, further, embraces
the principle of one standard-one test, supplier's declaration
of conformity worldwide, and encourages the concept to be used
by regulatory agencies." Many more standards than
those presently defined as International Standards, however,
can offer promise of meeting this industrial need. The world
market often embraces good standards from organizations that do
not meet the WTO criteria for International Body.
In some cases such standards arise from consensus
standards developing organizations accepting direct participation,
comments and votes from individual experts around the world. According
to the October 1996 Report to Congress of the US Trade Promotion
Coordinating Committee National Export Strategy, "In some
sectors, US-developed standards are accepted virtually world wide.
Examples include the American Society of Mechanical Engineers
boiler and pressure vessel code, used in 54 countries, and American
Petroleum Institute standards for petroleum products and pipelines."
ASTM (formerly the American Society of Testing and Materials)
and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE)
are also sources of world class standards based on such international
Industry fora and consortia have increasing market impacts particularly
in the information technology industrial sector. Companies are
joining together in coalitions to develop standards in their common
interest. Often registered under the anti- trust shelter provided
by the National Cooperative Research and Production Act (NCRPA)
of 1993 (which protects registered organizations from the risk
of normal anti-trust treble damages and liability for a plaintiff's
attorneys' fees), such groups usually adopt reasonable procedures
to achieve consensus within their membership. Such NCRPA
registration by the Open Software Foundation (OSF) did not, however,
dissuade the Addamax Corporation from contending in a recent antitrust
suite against the OSF and others, "Yet, Addamax was driven
out of business, not because its product failed in the marketplace,
but because the defendants and the coordinated exercise of their
power prevented Addamax from competing for sales
this stipulated injury, Addamax asks this Court to award it damages
in the amount of $51,175,000, plus treble damages and attorneys'
fees." OSF and its member must have breathed a collective
sigh of relief when Boston District Court Judge Trauro found >on
May 21, 1997, "It is not enough for Addamax to allege that
its injury was caused by defendant's antitrust violations. It
must show that the violation was a "material cause"
of its injury. As the court stated above, the computer
industry is an inherently risky business. Technology advances
quickly. Addamax started off too slowly, and when it finally
caught up, it suffered from a malady faced by many
companies in many fields. The customers did not want
to buy its products. Beneath the layers of technical computer
jargon is the undeniable fact that Addamax was an ineffective
company >trying to sell security
software's version of the ford Edsel. The fact that Addamax's
woes coincided, in part, with the rise of OSF is mere coincidence
and not the results of any alleged antitrust violations.
The court, therefore, finds that defendant's conduct
was not a material cause of any of Addamax's losses.
For the reasons mentioned above, the court holds that Addamax
is not entitled to any damages. An order will follow."
Consortia approaches to standards development generally do short
cut the rigorous due process and openness elements characteristic
of a full consensus type standards process, such as would be eligible
for accreditation by the American National Standards Institute.
Some proponents contend that the marketplace benefits of the
rapid conclusion of a consortia process outweigh the potential
anti trust risks and exposure to liability claims and suits as
illustrated in the Addamax case above. The Telecommunication
Technology Committee (TTC) of Japan summarized the standards activities
of 63 such organizations in its June, 1996 Survey report on
Telecommunication-related forum's activities. The TTC observed,
the de-facto standard impact on company activities
has increased. Thus, forum activities have proliferated, taking
account of standardization at the specification design stage forming
alliances in the market with the objective of establishing a position
for defacto standards, and defusing and promoting de facto standards
for rapid market activation.
How to cope with such forum
activities will greatly influence standardization activities in
Farthest in concept from the procedural trappings
of an open consensus process, Proprietary standards can also become
de facto worldwide market place standards. Good technology, good
business strategy with respect to freely licensing required intellectual
property, and the good luck of having the right product at the
right time can combine to reward the business in the fortunate
position with all of these. In such cases, a phenomena known
as the network effect produces an increasing positive feed back.
Every additional new user of the product or standard increases
its value to the new and existing users. The market choice of
VHS technology over BETA formats for video recordings illustrates
this concept. The use of Microsoft Windows operating systems
on 80% of the worldwide personal computers is another.
Weaknesses in the process of developing International Standards
lead to Competitive Threats
Competitive and political forces will define the
future role and niche for International Standards in the global
marketplace. International Standards risk losing their
reserved spot in this future if steps are not soon taken to address
five fundamental institutional shortcomings.
- The time to complete an International Standard is often out
of sync with the marketplace needs and expectation. In the Information
world of the future, "Web years" are measured in months.
Development, publication, and adoption of International Standards
must keep pace with these compressed product life cycles.
- The Byzantine institutional infrastructures of parallel often-competitive
national organizations, and parallel clearly competitive international
Central office overheads are no less than archaic. The system
generates duplicative and parallel national needs for resource
expenditures and generates costs that burden the system and places
it at competitive disadvantage to standards processes based on
direct international participation of materially and economically
interested parties. Industry can ill afford and will not support
these multiple investments of time and resources when there are
more attractive alternatives.
- The system too frequently looses touch with real world practicalities
and business exigencies. Resolution 11 from ICSCA this June,
states, "ICSCA II observes that there are too many ISO
standards that are out of date often rendering it technologically
impossible for nations to adopt them, and that there is too much
emphasis by ISO and IEC on the number of pages of standards produced.
Almost never is mention made by the number of users of those standards,
a situation diametrically opposed to the situation with consortia.
Recently, industry resources around the world were devoted
to preventing the initiation of new ISO work for Occupational
Health and Safety Management System standards. Resources expended
in keeping a standard from being written are resources not spent
on developing standards that are needed.
- Such situations can be symptomatic of processes with inappropriate
driving forces. The business of standards publication and sales
too often can influence standards processes far out of proportion
to the economic implications of the technology under standardization
or the volunteer resources consumed in development.
- The one country one vote principle of most International
Standards organizations sounds democratic and appealing but
can also produce decisions not reflective of economic stakes.
International standards are about politics and economics as much
as about technology and procedures. When countries and regions
use sheer numbers of block voting power to achieve a result out
of sync with the real marketplace, the resulting standards will
not be used and the process is ripe for political oversight and
Characteristic Strengths of International Standards and their
Development Process distinguish them from other Standards
Intrinsic strengths in the current concept of International
Standard and their process of generation sets them apart from
international (lower case), global, consortia and proprietary
standards. Any attempts to minimize or jettison these strengths
would be to devalue and trivialize the meaning of International
- One reason International Standards enjoy their global
acceptance is the presumption of worldwide agreement (consensus)
on their content and acceptance. This presumption is based on
confidence in the process of generating an international approval.
As long as there will be mankind, there will be member states
with national interests. The capital "I" in International
standards symbolizes this agreement among diverse national interests.
The International system must retain the concept of sovereign
member states rights and responsibilities.
- The status of International Standard under the TBT
as a means for governments to avoid erecting non-tariff barriers
to trade distinguishes such standards from others. Future revisions
of the TBT may redefine what constitutes an International Standard,
or International Standard Organization, but for the time
being such privilege does not apply to international (lowercase),
consortia or proprietary standards. In addressing competitive
threats and weaknesses, the worldwide caretakers of the International
Standards system must not sacrifice the integrity and respect
for the international process, which generates this special position.
- Access to, rights to use and implement, and claim conformity
with International Standards must be without undue restriction.
This concept applies to the purchase and publication of International
Standards in that they should be publicly available anywhere
for purchase at reasonable cost. A related concept is that copyrights
should not be held in restrictive terms or hands. Anyone should
be free to use and implement an International Standard.
When intellectual property rights (IPR) are necessary to use
or implement an International Standard, such IPR must be
available from the patent holder on reasonable and non-discriminatory
terms. While governments or purchasers may add their own requirements
for demonstrating conformity with a standard, there is no limitation
of the right for any one to claim conformity with an International
Standard. Woe be to he or she who makes a false claim of
conformity and is discovered by his/her competitor, the Federal
Trade Commission or applicable regulatory agency. A closely related
concept is that no single interest, third party or government
should be anointed as the only means of attesting to conformity
with an International Standard.
Proposed Solutions and on going Responses to the Dilemma Promise
Hope yet raise Critical Concerns for the Future
Some conceptual aspects of the path to the future are clear and
positive steps are underway. The great challenge is to bridge
the gap between the historical International Standards
processes and the alternative approaches, which have global marketplace
and industrial support. Fortunately leaders within the International
Standards community recognize the need to address the weaknesses
and preserve the strengths of the International Standards
system. Care and caution is necessary to reject proposals, however,
which may be attractive as near term solutions but miss the mark
when judged by long-term criteria. Some of current approaches,
and their strengths and weaknesses are described below.
- The process of setting International Standards must
employ the productivity and speed enhancing tools of today's information
technology. The transition to electronic media of the work of
the ISO/IEC JTC1 Committee on Information Technology (JTC1) is
leading the way to this future. Currently over 90% of JTC1 documents
are distributed electronically. The final stage of transition
will involve notification of documents posted on file servers.
Other International Standards committees should soon follow
this lead. The National Standards System Network lead by the
American National Standards Institute (ANSI) with support from
the National Institute of Standards and Technology is another
correct step to the future.
- The JTC1 experimental procedure to invite and accept contributions
from outside of the traditional process is another positive step.
The process known as the "Publicly Available Specification
(PAS)" route provides for JTC1 to recognize an organization
for the purposes of submitting a document for transposition as
an ISO/IEC standard near the end of the normal JTC1 approval process.
The PAS process is appealing in that it attempts to bridge the
gap between the formal standards world and the world of international
(lower case) global, consortia and fora standards. In two years'
experience with the procedures, JTC1 has recognized four organizations
as PAS submitters. Only recently has one of the JTC1- recognized
PAS organizations first used the process to submit a document
for transposition. So the process has yet to prove itself in
practice. The JTC1 community is currently addressing a major
controversy caused by the application of a single for Profit Company
to be recognized under the PAS approach. Such approval would attempt
to bridge the gap from International Standard all the way
to the world of proprietary standards. Many fear that recognizing
a single for-profit company as a PAS submitter goes too far in
the interests of expediency at the expense and to the detriment
of the long term intrinsic International Standard values
of due process and protection of the various stakeholders' interests
in Intellectual property. Negotiations are now occurring between
the company and JTC1 to define the conditions under which the
international standard might evolve. JTC1 national bodies around
the world have stated categorically, that a single company can
not, must not, will not control an international standard. Judging
from public statements of senior executives at the firm, it is
not at all evident that the company understands this. With the
outcome of the negotiations between JTC1 and this company rests
the future credibility of the international standards system,
as we know it today.
- The International Electrotechnical Commission, IEC, will offer
a new option to the traditional international consensus IEC standard
to be initially called Industry Technical Agreements (ITAs).
ITAs will be used by industry where business and trade in high-technology
products and services may not need international consensus standards
at market launch. The IEC has also revised its procedures to
add a new category D liaison expressly to become more attractive
for consortia/fora. While the new category will not include
voting rights, the IEC foresees the possibility of publication
of specifications from new non-traditional sources. The IEC anticipate
the new category may be attractive to, "manufacturer associations,
commercial associations, industrial consortia, user groups and
professional societies." IEC requires such liaisons
to, "be multinational with individual, company or country
" Thus IEC and JTC1 differ in their potential
treatment of proprietary standards. This IEC process offers
hope of bridging the gap with the non-traditional standards community
but as in the case of the JTC1 PAS experiment, it is too soon
for conclusions about its effectiveness.
- The ITU has reached an understanding with the Internet Engineering
Task Force. The understanding provides for increased communication
and liaison between the groups, which is a necessary first step
in improving coordination and harmonization of activities.
- An ISO Council ad hoc study group on consortia has recommended
that, "ISO continue its elaboration of new mechanisms
to facilitate collaboration with consortia as well as procedures
to introduce the results of the work of consortia into ISO."
ANSI as the US member body to ISO has asked for input from
its members on a position that any ISO Technical committee should
be free to have separate "accreditation" processes with
organizations that might submit their technical work directly
for approval, rather than though the conventional working group
or national body process. The chair of the ANSI effort to contrbute
the US position, Steve Oksala of Unisys, recently concluded, "There
was agreement (or at least no objection) by the contributors on
some of the proposed principles -
|That industry should determine the suitability of any standard
|Those ISO technical committees should be the ones that adopt
the standards (rather than direct ISO adoption) and that no new
organizational structures are needed.
|That any new mechanisms should apply to all types of organizations,
not just so-called "consortia" (but see below).
|That the same Intellectual Property Rights rules should apply,
no matter what the source of the document.
|That it would be acceptable for an ANSI-accredited standards
developer to both submit standards to ANSI and submit (possibly
other) standards directly to ISO under such a program.
|In contrast with the draft proposal, commenters did not support
either the requirement for payment/membership by a submitting
consortia in ISO or the national standards body of residence.
There was, however, disagreement on a number of significant
|Whether it was acceptable for a document to be submitted directly
from a non-consensus process; more generally, whether as a matter
of principle a document could be considered independent of its
|As a special case, whether a single for-profit company could
ever be acceptable as a submitter.
|Whether the JTC 1 PAS process was a good model.
|Whether documents of lesser consensus were a desirable outcome
of the process."
Oksala's conclusion stated, "That no significant statement
of principle could be reasonably endorsed by ANSI at this time.
Further, it seems obvious that such a statement is not likely
to be possible in the foreseeable future. The trend at the international
level is toward more flexibility, concentrated at the Technical
Committee level; the ISO ad hoc on consortia's primary recommendation
was to grant all ISO TCs the same flexible mechanisms that are
enjoyed by a few (such as JTC 1) today. It therefore seems
sensible to let the industry sectors involved, through the U.S.
TAG process, establish the principles and practices which they
wish to support in their work."
The future of the international standards system to support the
global marketplace is at a crossroads. Without question, industry
demands fundamental reforms to the traditional infrastructure
to respond to today's business needs. But there is a careful
balance to be maintained between solutions taken to address essential
weaknesses, and shortcuts that could be taken that could fatally
weaken the system.
These are indeed interesting times for Standards policy and Global
Trade. The challenges to the System have never been as great
as now. But adapting and changing to new circumstances is both
necessary and good. Look how far we have come.
One of the first attempts to set up a standard in the Western
World took place in the year 1120 at the time of the first Crusades.
The sponsor was King Henry I of England. Henry ordered that
the ell, the ancient yard, should be the exact length of his arm,
and commanded that distance henceforth to be the standard unit
of comparison of lengths throughout his kingdom. The ell, 45
inches in length, was used until only very recently for measuring
cloth. Henry's counterpart across the channel must have been
of smaller stature. The Flemish ell was 27 inches or 3/4 of a yard.