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Open standards policy in India: A long, but successful journey

by Prasad Krishna last modified Apr 02, 2011 07:40 AM
Last week, India became another major country to join the growing, global open standards movement. After three years of intense debate and discussion, India's Department of IT in India finalized its Policy on Open Standards for e-Governance, joining the ranks of emerging economies like Brazil, South Africa and others. This is a historic moment and India's Department of Information Technology (DIT) deserves congratulations for approving a policy that will ensure the long-term preservation of India's e-government data.

A major victory for the Open Source community is that the policy now says, "4.1.2 The Patent claims necessary to implement the Identified Standard shall be made available on a Royalty-Free basis for the life time of the Standard."

This victory is really important to the open source community because open source and open standards have a symbiotic relationship. While open source is the freedom to modify, share and redistribute software source code, open standards refer to the freedom to encode and decode data and network protocols. One freedom without the other is a limited freedom.

In the Indian policy, proprietary software vendors wanted to define open standards in such a way that even royalty-based standards would be included. Due to stiff opposition from the free and open source software community, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), academia and others, this proposal was rolled back.

Under the National e-Government Action Plan, the Indian government is spending more than 10 billion dollars on e-governance. Some of the largest greenfield e-governance projects are in India. For example, one project aims to give a unique ID to more than 700 million Indians. Given the scale and scope of e-governance in India, the storage, archival and retrieval of e-governance data is a critical state responsibility. The standards selected by India also have global implications because the sheer volumes of usage in India, could make those standards the most popular standards in the world.

It must be remembered that while software changes every few years, the underlying data (birth and death records, census data, tax data etc.) is fairly static and might have to be preserved for centuries. If the government stores its data in a closed format, it could permanently lose access to that data if the owner of that format goes out of business or refuses to provide access to that format. If the government stores its data in proprietary formats that require royalty payments, the negotiation power of the vendor goes up as more and more data is stored in that proprietary format; a situation that no sovereign power should tolerate.

The Indian policy also states that a single open standard will be used for e-governance. This clause is also extremely important. For example, if a Central Government Ministry requests a certain set of information from state governments in India, and each state government submits the data in a different format, enormous amounts of time will be wasted in converting the data into a common format. There is also risk that data could be lost in the process of converting data from one format to another. Therefore, the usage of a single, open standard for an application area is the backbone that will unify these applications and enable the sharing of data across different applications. This will drive more efficiency in e-governance enabling policy makers and e-government practitioners to quickly pull together data from different government departments and take more informed decisions.

It was a very tough fight and the proprietary vendors used their market clout and strong field presence in their attempts to subvert open standards. For example, in the previous draft policy dated 25/11/2009, the wordings of the key section read,

"4.1.2 The essential patent claims necessary to implement the Identified Standard should preferably be available on a Royalty-Free (no payment and no restrictions) basis for the life time of the standard. However, if such Standards are not found feasible and in the wider public interest, then RF on Fair, Reasonable and Non Discriminatory terms and conditions (FRAND) or Reasonable and Non Discriminatory terms and conditions (RAND) could be considered."

Commenting on the final policy, veteran journalist, Glyn Moody said, “As you can see, there is no room for doubt here, no quibbling with 'RF on Fair, Reasonable and Non Discriminatory terms and conditions (FRAND)' or 'Reasonable and Non Discriminatory terms and conditions (RAND)' as the earlier version suggested: just a clear and simple 'Royalty-Free basis for the life time of the Standard'.”

So how did the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) community succeed against tremendous odds? Some key actions that helped us succeed are: 

   1. We worked long and hard to educate the  public and the media. At first, some journalists shied away from writing on this subject because they found it too arcane and complex. It took over six months of talking to mediapersons before one of the mainstream publications carried an article on open standards. Once that happened, the dam broke and other publications also started to write about this “arcane” subject.
   2. The academic community, especially in the prestigious Indian academic institutions, were very supportive of open standards. Many academicians have influential positions on government committees and their support helped.
   3. India has a very vibrant set of Civil Society Organizations. The FOSS community worked with leading CSOs like IT For Change, Center for Internet and Society, Knowledge Commons and others that are founded by people who have tremendous experience in working on technology policy issues. A loose-knit coalition was formed under the title of FOSSCOMM and some excellent representations were made to the Indian government.
   4. Many sections within government itself were firmly in favor of open standards and the community worked closely with them.
   5. The community made common cause with sections of industry that supported open standards. This helped counter the pressure from industry associations that were supporting proprietary standards.

It was a long but extremely rewarding issue to be involved in and I am documenting this in the hope that other countries can benefit from the experiences we gained in fighting for open standards in India.  Jai Ho! (May you be victorious!)

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