Governance and standards: Publishing and Linking on the Web

Governance is the process by which society defines expectations, grants power, or verifies performance, through laws, regulations, or other means. Societies govern communication, for example, to support copyright, privacy, or to help manage defamatory or illegal material. As the Internet becomes increasingly central to the way people communicate, it is also increasingly subject to governance.

Unfortunately, a number of problems commonly arise when dealing with governance of the Internet.

Regulations often don’t match the technology. Ordinarily, we use analogies to talk about technology; for example, we talk about “publishing a page”, but the actual process of putting up a web page is very different from physical publishing by making and distributing printed paper. So a rule “It’s okay to read this page, but you can’t make a copy of it” doesn’t acknowledge that, in order to read a page, the bits that make the page must necessarily be copied to the reader’s computer.

Different goals conflict. Law enforcement might require that a site owner keep records of everyone who posts information, in order to be able to track down those who post illegal or defamatory material, while, at the same time, privacy regulation might insist that the same site owner not keep records.

The internet is global, but governance is local. The jurisdiction of law, regulation and social values are geographically based, but the Internet has no simple boundaries. Yet values, regulation, laws from different jurisdictions are inconsistent, and often conflicting. Is it possible to conform to the norms of everyone from a single web site?

Technology standards can help reduce some of the difficulties by providing appropriate terminology, guidance and standards. For example, W3C standards for accessibility have helped reduce some of the unnecessary variability between accessibility guidelines in various countries. In another example, many countries have created regulations and laws that reference common standards for digital signatures of documents, which in turn helps extend the applications that can be supported by electronic communication.

Recently, as a member of the Technical Architecture Group of the World Wide Web Consortium, I’ve been helping produce a First Public Working Draft of a new document called Publishing and Linking on the Web.

This is the first step of getting community consensus on the document and any recommendations. Your thoughts are welcome! Please review the document, share it, discuss it, make comments. Only by discussion can we develop a a common understanding of the alignment of technology and values, and help standards groups, policy makers, and those building new Internet content and services.




Technical Standards during ‘China’s 12th Five Year Plan’


A little over two months ago, the Chinese government’s Ministry of Science & Technology released a document entitled “The Special Planning Document for Technical Standards during China’s 12th Five Year Plan.” For short, I’ll call this the “SPD.” This SPD is one of a series published in recent months by the Chinese government on standards and standardization.

A little background is necessary to understand why the Chinese government is emphasizing standards—especially technical standards. China first emerged as a powerful global economic force largely as a foundry nation. In other words, it produced manufactured goods based on others’ designs – the classic commodity provider. The keys to competitiveness in this area include price, scale and flexibility of manufacturing, and the availability of the right workforce.

Perhaps realizing that China could not become a major player in the international information and communications technology (ICT) arena solely as a foundry nation, Chinese government policy now appears aimed at moving the country up the value chain to become a designer and creator of its own ICT products. It has also come to realize that standards, in the era of the Internet and widely and massively connected systems, are essential to market success. The Chinese government examined the German use of standards after World War II to promote that country’s industrial export policy; at the use of standards by the EU to foster a single European market; and at the use of standards by United States companies to drive the direction and focus of the information and communications technology sector. In short, they have realized that standardization is an important element of national industrial policy. The investment in standardization education, the increased participation by Chinese companies in a wide spectrum of SDOs, and the creation of Chinese consortia all point to an understanding of the value of standards to set direction in an industry.

The SPD opens with a bold assertion – “Technical standards are the technical basis of social and economic activities, a strategic resource for national development and a core element for international competitiveness.” This statement is the key to understanding the remainder of the document – which sets forth how technical standards are to be used and considered in planning, R&D, Advanced Development, Testing and Certification, Intellectual Property, and a host of other areas that are typical of life cycle planning in technology companies. More importantly, the Chinese government sees standards as encouraging innovation by limiting duplication, encouraging sharing, and making innovative ideas and products more available to other developers. Standards are also seen as coordinative activities, allowing disparate groups to develop solutions – but with the added caveat that these solutions must/may be applied to social, legal, and economic issues more easily. In total, the document presents an ideal and optimistic vision of standards as a strategic planning mechanism that can be used to spur their economy and various industries, both new and established.

However, it must also be remembered that this is a formal governmental planning document. Planning documents – especially long-term documents – can change, not because the original plan was faulty or incomplete, but because the market conditions upon which the plan was predicated have changed. For the Chinese strategy to succeed, the government will have to be flexible and adaptive in implementing the strategy, as there is no longer a static landscape in the world of ICT standardization.

The Information and Communications Technology sector standards environment in the United States and Europe is highly dynamic – as illustrated by activities like the creation of WebKit and open source; the appearance of W3C community groups; the increase in different Intellectual Property Rights rules within Standards Setting Organizations; the constant creation of new consortia; and the appearance of ad hoc standardization (as shown by social media). Over the last five years, ICT standardization has changed dramatically. Because formal standards organizations (ISO, IEC, and the ITU-based) move slowly, the ICT sector often relies on consortia and ad-hoc groups (WebKit, WHAT WG, and the like) for innovation and leadership in standards development. Additionally, planning in a period of significant change is challenging – and planning for standards is a second derivative of ICT planning. It both leads and is led by technology and technological planning – but with a healthy dose of marketing and economic and social strategy thrown in.

With that said, the SPD is a fascinating statement of Chinese governmental policy. One only wishes that there were corresponding standards strategies from other countries, recognizing the criticality of standards for national competitiveness, with which to compare with that of the Chinese government. There is an old saying in the standards world: “If you don’t play, you can’t complain.” If this document serves the purpose of causing others to re-examine their approaches and seek consensus, then it has served not only China, but also the world.

Internationalized Resource Identifiers: Standards Progress

The idea of a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is a key Web innovation: the “hyper” of hypertext. URLs function as a combined locator (how to find it) and identifier (how to name it) for reference to other Internet resources within documents (using hypertext, such as the HyperText Markup Language [HTML]), email, and a variety of other Internet protocols (e.g., the HyperText Transfer Protocol [HTTP]).
URLs were designed to be portable and easily transcribed at a time when most computers had very limited support for character sets. As a result, the allowed characters for a URL is limited to a subset of safe characters that are always available, much like identifiers in most programming languages: the ASCII letters, digits, and a few punctuation characters.  However, unlike programming languages, URLs are frequently made visible to users. Web users see and type URLs, and it is common for people to use URLs in advertising, written communication, and spoken announcements.
Since most of the world uses languages which are written with characters not allowed in URLs, there has been considerable interest in development of a kind of URL which allows the use of other (“non-ASCII”) characters drawn from Unicode — the standard for representing characters for the world’s languages. This new identifier is called an Internationalized Resource Identifier (IRI); it overlaps the existing URL syntax, based on the idea that some systems might still be URL-only while others might allow IRIs.
This was pretty good in theory, but in practice there have been a number of problems: For example, having multiple ways of writing the same identifier can cause security and reliability problems if implementations aren’t uniform. The standard, rather than converging, has undergone some pressure and divergence because of the wide variety of implementations.
Work continues to try to bring the concerned implementors together to work out the details and ensure that there is a single standard for IRIs in browsers, email, HTML, plain text, and other contexts. Specifications are developed in the World Wide Web consortium (W3C) and the Internet Engineering Task force. Adobe’s Larry Masinter and Roy Fielding continue to work on the related standards as editors, specification authors and reviewers.

As with most standards, the overall concept is simple; it’s the details that are difficult given that any changes to the core addressing standards for the Web have significant implications for security, reliability, and compatibility with existing deployed systems.

Eating Our Seed Corn: A Standards Parable For Our Time

This paper was written and presented at the 2005 Yale Law School “Information as Flow” Seminar by Carl Cargill, Principal Scientist at Adobe Systems.  It has since been updated and modified by the author. Link to full paper is here.

Abstract: This paper presents a gloomy review of the current standardization regimes in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector as methods of providing technological governance which are responsive to either social or national needs. Over the last quarter century, voluntary Standards Setting Organizations (SSOs) have become dominated by large multi-national corporations, and have increasingly changed to serve their new masters. This change has had a beneficial side, such as the unfettered creation of the World Wide Web. It also has its darker side, as evinced by the current debate that is raging on the role of intellectual property and standardization. On a positive note, governments are now beginning to comprehend the power of standardization as a tool to help set industrial policy. Unfortunately, there are very few sources of expertise available to the policy makers on the phenomena of voluntary standards setting.  However, the lack of expertise in how to deal with this phenomenon called voluntary standardization has not stopped the need for intervention. It is the contention of this paper that voluntary standardization, absent governmental intervention, will become a balkanizing force in the spread and growth of technology.

HTML Encrypted Media Proposal

I’m Kevin Streeter and I am an architect with Adobe’s Video Solutions organization.  My expertise lies in the area of media formats, streaming and content delivery in addition to DRM and content protection.   I’ve recently joined with others at Adobe to bring new capabilities (many originally pioneered by Adobe)  to the web platform. My particular areas of focus are media delivery and playback.

As part of this effort, Adobe strongly supports the initiative to add optional support for encrypted media into HTML and the web platform. Content creators want to build new and innovative ways for people to enjoy their content within the browser. We support this initiative to get more content, currently only available using Flash, onto the web using HTML5.

The specification from Microsoft, Google, and Netflix is a great start. I’m looking forward to working with the group to ensure that the web platform is able to support a diverse set of media use cases, both for content that is encrypted and content that is not encrypted.

If you’d like to follow the discussion about adding support for encrypted media in HTML, you can start here.

An Increasingly Standards-Based World

Welcome to the Adobe blog about industry standards in technology and related areas. Over the years, Adobe has developed and participated in a wide variety of industry standards including imaging, fonts, metadata, and documentation. As interoperability between service platforms becomes increasingly important in digital marketing and digital media, we will continue to be involved, participate, and lead where appropriate.

This particular blog is to help give visibility into Adobe’s activities in standards-related areas and to point out interesting currents in the industry that everyone has to navigate. Our hope is that by actively helping to enable interoperability between platforms, we foster an ecosystem of applications, partners, and users that increase the size and utility of the platforms for everybody involved. We look forward to working with you on this!