justice in industry standards

This is a topic that I would write about if I suddenly had three free months and could actually study the facts of the matter. Lacking those months (but having a blog), I hereby offer my untotored thoughts …

For centuries, companies and entrepreneurs have negotiated voluntary standards that spread throughout industries, so that (for example), you can buy a lightbulb and know that it will fit into your lamp back home: the sizes and shapes are standardized. Traditionally, the precise choice of a standard has been arbitrary–it doesn’t matter how many milimeters wide lightbulbs are, as long as they’re the same. To the extent that traditional standards raise issues of public concern, the main ones are safety (a really dumb standard can be dangerous) and antitrust (incumbent industries can deliberately create standards that are unnecessarily hard for competitors to replicate).

In the new world of networked computers, antitrust remains a concern, but there are many additional issues of great importance. Since standards are what allow computers to communicate and software to run on multiple “platforms,” they must be very detailed. It is in the standards process that the key design choices are made that shape email, webpages, document formats, and digital movies. Just for example, I once heard Tim Berners-Lee speak in Washington, and he said that he wished he had written the standards for the World Wide Web so that no information could be transmitted from visitors to owners of websites. That choice would have prevented privacy violations, but it also would have blocked many useful functions, including virtually all e-commerce. So I suspect we’re better off with the standards that Berners-Lee actually created. In any case, his choice to allow two-way communications had enormous consequences.

Market libertarians may view any standards as acceptable, since they result from voluntary negotiations. But even free-marketers should worry when monopoly companies dominate the standards process. Civil libertarians should want standards to protect constitutional values like privacy and free expression. Following Lawrence Lessig, they should view computer “code” as parallel to legal “code”; either one can abridge freedoms. Communitarians may see standards as opportunities to protect community interests, for example, by preventing viruses and terrorists’ messages from being encoded in picture files. Strong democrats may distrust a powerful process that isn’t overseen by elected governments. Advocates of the commons may view voluntary standards (which are “contributed” by hard-working code-writers) as a form of common property, except when standards are designed to protect narrow economic interests. And all observers should be interested that today’s standards often pay explicit attention to two issues–disabilities and privacy–but not to any other normative questions.

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1 Response to justice in industry standards

  1. Helen Nissenbaum at NYU has an interesting project funded by the Ford Foundation called “Values in Design.” Although the scope is broader to include all technical design and not just standards, she is very much concerned with intentional efforts to design technologies and standards that embody human values. As you point out, disabilities and privacy get a lot of play but other important values–like deliberative democracy–are under-examined at present.

    Suffice it say, I think that “justice and industry standards” is a topic that would take longer than 3 months to study comprehensively.

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